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Bloomington-Normal resumes student exchange with Asahikawa, Japan, after 3-year hiatus

 Bloomington-Normal Asahikawa Sister Cities student exchange
Students from Bloomington-Normal visited a school in Asahikawa during a 2017 visit to Japan as part of the Asahikawa Sister Cities junior ambassador program.

Arisa Mahatanankoon of Normal will be a junior at University High School this fall, but she won't actually be at U-High. Instead, Mahatanankoon will be going to school in Asahikawa, Japan.

Mahatanankoon admits she's not fluent in Japanese, but she's been taking lessons, and thinks she can pick it up quickly once she's there.

“I’ve heard stories about people who’ve picked it up just by involving themselves and just making conversations with other people,” she said.

Mahatanankoon is the first Bloomington-Normal student to take part in the Sister Cities student exchange with Asahikawa since the COVID-19 pandemic. The exchange program dates back to the 1960s, but was halted in March 2020 when students were ordered to return to their home countries.

Asahikawa is a city of more than 350,000 residents on Japan's northern Hokkaido island.

Jeffrey Kroesch, one of the leaders in the Asahikawa Sister Cities program, is eager to see the student exchange resume.

“It’s really special to me that we are just now returning to the activities that we rely upon and use to build that connection,” Kroesch said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

 Jeffrey Kroesch and Arisa Mahatanankoon
Eric Stock
Jeffrey Kroesch and Arisa Mahatanankoon with the Bloomington-Normal Asahikawa Sister Cities program.

Kroesch teaches language arts at Bloomington Junior High School and heads up the Sister Cities’ junior ambassador program. It sends 15 junior high and high school students to Japan for two weeks over the summer. That, too, has been on hold since 2020.

Kroesh was part of the 2017 junior ambassador trip and hopes to take another group next year. He said the free room and board with a Japanese family makes it a bargain.

“I talk to other parents who send students all the time to summer programs in the states that end up costing upwards of $2,000, but for the cost of airfare, we can get an eighth grader through freshman or sophomore year of high school, we can get them to Asahikawa for a full two-week program,” Kroesch said.

Kroesch said the junior ambassador program has remained on hold partly because families in Asahikawa were reluctant to host foreign students. Japan until recently still had COVID rules in place for travelers.

Finding host families is a challenge for Kroesch and the Bloomington-Normal Sister Cities, too. Asahikawa has chosen a high school senior who will attend Normal Community High School this fall.

Kroesch said he would like to have up to three families to rotate hosting duties throughout the school year. There are no takers so far.

“The student typically has a great time with their school in relating to any host siblings they might have. Our goal is to make connections and make it feel valuable for the family that’s receiving the student,” he said.

Kroesch said host families must have school-aged children, preferably in the same school, and must live near a school bus route unless they family can provide daily transportation to and from school.

The Sister Cities program used to have multiple students in the exchange program each year. That stopped during the 1990s because of a shortage of host families in Japan.

Kroesch said he would like to see more host families because there's plenty of student interest. “We have a lot of excellent candidates in the Bloomington-Normal area who are interested and I feel it’s a bit of a shame that we can only send one at a time,” Kroesch said.

Mahatanankoon said she's wanted to visit Japan ever since the fourth grade when she started learning about Japanese culture through a Saturday School program at Thomas Metcalf school in Normal.

“I hope to get to understand more about Japanese culture firsthand because I guess you can learn it from books and from a teacher, but if you experience it firsthand, that’s a different thing,” she said.

Mahatanankoon said she plans to go to college after high school, but she's not sure where. If this experience goes well, she said she might want to take another exchange program in another part of the world.

The Bloomington-Normal Asahikawa Sister Cities program also is set to mark 60 years since its founding. A delegation that includes Asahikawa's mayor is set to visit the Twin Cities in late July. Their trip will include a tour of Rivian, the electric-vehicle plant that replaced the factory that Japanese automaker Mitsubishi operated in Normal for decades.

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Corrected: June 1, 2023 at 12:30 PM CDT
An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified Arisa Mahatanankoon as a senior at U-High.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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