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Crossing Borders: Japanese Students Live In Utah To Learn About A Different Culture

Hailey Hendricks

Through the Utah Family Exchange Services program, Aina Koyama, along with 65 other Japanese students, were assigned to live with host families in Utah last summer to experience the American and Utah culture.

Jay Elggren, director of the program, said this three-week opportunity is beneficial for foreign exchange students who want to live in America and be more than a tourist.

“Crossing the borders, to me, is more of them sharing our culture and us sharing theirs,” Elggren said, “ instead of just learning in a classroom about the history of Japan or America. They’re actually experiencing what it’s like, how we think and how we feel.”

Because Elggren has hosted many exchange students in his own home over the years, he’s never really had to leave the country to experience others’ customs and beliefs.

“This is our third time hosting, so we have just loved it in the past and so we just want to keep doing it,” said Davis County resident Sarah Webb.

This year, Webb and her family were assigned to host a 13-year-old Japanese boy. He’s close in age and interest to her three boys. She said because of the program, her kids have been able to experience things she never was able to experience in her youth.

“You just really learn what different cultures are like and that people, even though they come from different places and different cultures, that generally people are the same wherever you go,” she said.

Because the Webb’s hosted a Japanese student, they also learned more about the Asian culture, what it might be like to live in Japan, eating traditional meals, and playing games that are commonly played in their students’ home country.

“There are many different people, like, different cultures and different lifestyles in the world,” Aina said.

“It really brings people together from different cultures and like, if people would do that more, I just think there would be so much more peace in the world,” Webb said. “Just because you realize how amazing other people are from different countries and you come to understand them more.”

For the exchange to happen, both the host family and exchange student have to fill out documents and paperwork that include family photos, what their interests are, do they have allergies or special food requests and ideas of what they want to do during their stay.

Before meeting her host family, Aina looked forward to finding common interests with her hosts’, as she didn’t know a lot about them.

“My host mother is an artist, like painting,” Aina said. “I love painting. So, same hobbies. I want to paint with her together.”

Credit Aina Koyama
Eating lunch, Aina spends time with her host family.

While staying with her host family in Bountiful, Aina posted pictures on social media of herself interacting with the family by teaching them how to cook Japanese noodles, visiting popular Utah tourist sites such as the Salt Lake City Temple, the Utah State Capitol building, Lagoon, and going to local farmers’ markets and parks.

After returning home to Tokyo, Aina used Facebook to share her thoughts about her time spent here. She wrote about how her host family made her feel welcome and how she plans to come back to Utah again.

“I love America,” Aina said.

Because Japanese students stayed in Utah last summer, it’s now time for Utah students to travel to Japan.

In preparation for the exchange this coming July and August, Utah students, ages 12 to 18, are raising money through the Feed The Need program by packing and shipping 10,000 meals to send to Haiti.

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here.