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Students expand horizons to Ebetsu, Japan


- Through a Gresham Sister City exchange, four East County students visited Japan this summer

Photo Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: MONIKA FITZGERALD - Monika Fitzgerald, Darby Balantac, Austin Wheeler and Spencer Livermore received a warm welcome from their host families in Ebetsu.

Gresham High senior Spencer Livermore had his sights set on Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But after a month-long summer exchange in Ebetsu, Japan, Livermore hopes to attend Hokkaido Daigaku, a college 30 minutes from his host family’s home in Sapporo.

“This summer had a major impact on my life,” Livermore said. “I gained perspective on what I actually want to do.”

Livermore was one of four Gresham and Reynolds High students who ventured to Ebetsu this summer through the Gresham Sister City Association, a nonprofit organization that began in 1977.

Students, who study Japanese at their home schools, spent four weeks attending school and living with a host family in Ebetsu. In turn, Ebetsu high school students visit East County in January during their month-long winter break, staying with host families.

This year’s students included Livermore and Monika Fitzgerald, a 2014 Gresham High grad; and Reynolds seniors Darby Balantac and Austin Wheeler.

The trip brought Balantac full circle after she hosted a Japanese girl named Yume. With a longtime interest in Anime and Manga, Balantac was always intrigued by Japanese language and culture.

During their stay, students had the opportunity to see “Phantom of the Opera,” visit a disaster prevention site and attend the Festival of the Stars, among many excursions.

Students noted they could buy just about anything in a vending machine — including an omelet, and subway stations are like mini malls.

In Japan, they observed a stronger reverence for elders and how eating on the go is considered a no-no.

More than anything, students said they enjoyed stretching their comfort zones with their language skills and building camaraderie with their Japanese hosts.

Wheeler said he was amazed how well the students were able to get to know Japanese friends with many more restraints, like their speaking abilities.

Fitzgerald enjoyed the stars festival, describing how the group wrote down paper wishes and tied them to a tree.

Livermore said he felt a deep sense of belonging — that his bond to Japanese students almost seemed closer because they had to really try to get to know each other through language barriers.

Just a change of pace was refreshing for the American students.

“I got so much relaxation (during the trip) that my mind doesn’t usually have,” Livermore said. “I want to come back.”

Between Gresham and Reynolds High, about 200 students take Japanese, said Tomiko Takeuchi vice president of the Gresham Sister City Association.

“This is huge as we look to the future of Gresham Sister City - Ebetsu, and the possibilities are endless,” she said.

Students are planning to share stories from their trip at a Gresham City Council meeting and through MetroEast Community Media.

The Gresham Sister City Association also has had previous partnerships with Sokcho, South Korea and Owerri, Nigeria.

Gresham Sister City mission statement

“To foster friendships with our sister cities that promote and strengthen our educational, economic development, and cultural ties that enrich the lives of citizens by contributing to world peace and prosperity.”

More online

Visit http://www.greshamsistercity.org/.