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Westview High School senior's interest in language and medicine leads him to Japan
by: Jaime Valdez Matt Twete is in Sagamihara, Japan, where he will spend the next 10 months of his senior year studying the Japanese language and culture.

To the typical American who speaks and writes exclusively in English, the idea that Japanese could be a simpler language likely seems such a, well, foreign concept.

But to right brain-oriented Matt Twete, the Japanese have a way of getting to the point that simply sings to him.

'In English we have 'a' and 'and' and we conjugate things,' he says. 'Japanese is a lot simpler than that. There are no prepositions. There's no plural. It's a different language, coming from English, but it's a very logical language.'

The Westview High School student's intrigue in further exploring those patterns of logic led him to Sagamihara, Japan. He will finish his senior year of high school immersed in language and science studies in the Tokyo suburb of 700,000 people.

'They call them 'Super Schools,'' Twete explains. 'This is a 'Super Science' school. I'm placed in the International Science section. It's a small school, with about 600 kids.'

Twete, 17, said goodbye to his parents, Bob and Cheryl Twete, on Saturday, before flying off to Japan to meet the family that will host him for the next 10 months through the Ayusa Global Youth Exchange program.

His first stop was San Francisco, where he connected with about 15 other students participating in the program from across the U.S. The nonprofit Ayusa organization was founded in the Bay Area in 1981 with the goal of fostering global learning and leadership for high school students around the world.

Family inspiration

Twete says he was inspired by family trips to Japan, where his father, a computer engineer with Tektronix, often traveled on business. The youngest of three children, Twete liked what he experienced so much that he participated in a three-week exchange program in 2009.

'I've always enjoyed going to Japan,' he says. 'I had a conversation with Mom, who said, 'I don't really mind if you went again.''

Twete got busy looking up student exchange organizations online. Trouble was, his inspiration struck a good month or two after deadlines for most student-exchange programs had passed.

'Only two would accept me,' Twete explains. 'One just got back to me right away. Ayusa was very nice about that. They let me in late.'

Timing aside, Twete's academic credentials were enough to impress Ayusa's admissions officials.

He realized this summer he's only one credit short of graduating high school. In addition to maintaining a high grade point average, he received a merit award for language studies through Beaverton's Arts and Communication Magnet Academy.

Unfortunately, his teacher, Izumi Neitzel, who nominated Twete for the award, died before she could see her former student pursue his dreams of international study.

'It's pretty sad,' he says.

Common cultures

Cheryl Twete, who works as development manager with Metro regional government, says her son's ambition is partly innate but also influenced by his upbringing and education.

'We've traveled quite a bit,' she says. 'I give his teachers a lot of credit. (Matt) was inspired by them.'

The Twete family has hosted several exchange students in their Beaverton home, including a girl from Japan who is visiting through a program different than Matt's.

'The exchanges have really helped us all realize how similar we are no matter what part of the world we come from,' Cheryl Twete says. 'We're much more alike than different.'

Cheryl, who says English is the only language she and her husband know, still marvels at her son's aptitude for non-native languages, which for Matt includes German, Chinese and Korean as well as Japanese.

'Learning Japanese came easy to him. His Japanese handwriting is better than his English,' she says with a laugh. 'His teachers have commented on it.'

Acclimation

While keeping an open mind, Matt Twete admits he's entering a rather unique situation regarding his host 'family,' which is actually a 63-year-old single woman.

'It could be a lot more traditional lifestyle' than with a larger family, he says, noting the host families receive no monetary compensation. 'Most (Japanese) families are modernized. This woman is probably very traditional and practices values and the way she was taught in the '50s.'

In addition to learning the Japanese language, Twete also plans to learn more about the country's medical system. His post-high school plans include studying biology in a pre-medical program at the University of Oregon or another American university.

'I'd like to practice there,' he says of Japan. 'I hope to investigate and talk to some people about it.'

While realizing one person is not enough to change ingrained cultural norms, Twete says he envisions providing a more personalized touch as a practitioner compared to the more laissez faire practices he understands are common to Japan.

'If I open up a clinic, I'm not just going to walk out and hand you a paper so you can take some pills,' he says. 'One thing is to figure out why (medicine there) is that way.'

Mixed blessing

As part of Ayusa's full immersion philosophy, students are expected to remain in their host countries for the full 10 months of their school term. Holiday trips home and visits from parents are discouraged, Cheryl Twete says.

As might be expected, Matt's mom has mixed feelings about her son's Japanese adventure.

'Part of me is very proud of him for wanting to see the world and learn a different culture and make such a significant investment of time in doing it,' she says. 'On the other hand, I'm his mom and am really gonna miss him this year.'