Visiting Japanese students experience Bethel

February 23, 2012 | 10:02 a.m.

Bethel University welcomes students from the University of Niigata Prefecture

News | Alex Kempston

Visiting Japanese students experience Bethel

Students from the University of Niigata Prefecture (Japan) are visiting Bethel as part of the St. Paul Intercultural Institute. | Photo by Jared Johnson

Forty-two college students flew into the Twin Cities from Japan on Saturday, Feb. 18. These students are from the University of Niigata Prefecture and will spend the next three and a half weeks experiencing life in America and getting a taste of Bethel culture.

They will attend classes alongside Bethel students and be immersed in Minnesota life. Bethel students also have the opportunity to learn from the Japanese students by sharing lifestyles, cultures and languages.

In 1995, Professor Paul Reasoner, who grew up in Japan, established a summer academic program, called the St. Paul Intercultural Institute, where students from two Japanese universities came to Bethel to learn about the American lifestyle and share about life in Japan.

“The universities wanted to be part of a four-week, home-stay immersion program in the U.S.,” said Reasoner.

Since then the program has grown immensely, and in 2005 a third university, the University of Niigata Prefecture, added a spring program, through which students are invited to visit Bethel. During this time, students take classes on the English language, hear lectures from many different Bethel professors and go out into the community to share and learn about both cultures.

While here, students stay with host families. According to Lisa Bekemeyer, the program director of the St. Paul Intercultural Institute at Bethel University since 2005, this gives students the chance to immerse themselves in American life in the most natural and authentic way. “It was set up with the policy of one student per home stay for more of an immersion program,” said Reasoner.

The host families are at the core of the program. To be put directly into daily American life provides the best learning experience and gives them a hands-on look into American families. The relationships they create while staying with the host families can last even after they leave.

In addition to living with families, the students are given a three-week course plan with a different theme each week. The first week is family life, during which students take classes and listen to lectures on adoption, the English language and marriages in American culture. They also look into American family lifestyles that include household chores, discipline and interaction with relatives. The students go out into the community and visit nursing centers, which are rare in Japanese society, and teach about Japanese culture.

During the second week, the students are introduced in the American education system. During this time, they hear lectures on special education and gender differences and visit an elementary school, where they introduce Japanese culture to the students. At the end of the week, all the students take a camping trip to Hudson, Wis.

The third week focuses on diversity in America. Students listen to lectures on different cultures in America and race issues, and they attend an English speech class. They visit the Mill City Museum, learn about the American government system from representatives at the capitol building and go skating at The Depot in Minneapolis.

At the end of the trip, the Japanese students have experienced many aspects of life and culture in America, as well as teaching the people they meet about their own culture.

Bekemeyer believes that the opportunity for the two cultures to grow together encourages both groups of students to branch out of their normal schedules, however busy they are, and learn about life at another end of the world. “This is a chance to reach out, and it is also a chance to gain,” she said. “We are called on to be a diversely unified people and to share our lifestyle with people from across the world.”

Reasoner told the story of how a young graduate student from a university in Tokyo came along to help when the program first began. He traveled all the way across Japan in 2004 to a reunion of students who had participated in the program. He explained that he was now a professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture and wanted to send his own students. This university became the third Japanese school to join the program, and it is where this month’s students will be coming from.

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