For the first time since 2019, a delegation of students from four different public school districts in Garland County and the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts traveled to Japan to visit the city's sister city Hanamaki.
A total of 10 students from ASMSA and the Mountain Pine, Lakeside, Lake Hamilton and Hot Springs school districts applied and were chosen to make the trip, visiting schools and attractions in Hanamaki.
"We truly strive for the delegation to not only be students whose parents can write a check for them to go, but to send the best representatives of Garland County, from our area, from our schools because they understand that they are representatives, kind of ambassadors, if you will," said Mary Zunick, the executive director of the Sister City Program.
Some students were chosen to travel to Hanamaki in 2020, but were unable to because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, some of those students were finally able to make the trip after a three-year wait, including Robert Neilson, a graduate of ASMSA going into his sophomore year at Arkansas State University.
"Honestly, it had been enough time where I was like, 'Alright, it's finally here,'" he said. "It's like I had come to terms with the fact that it had been so long, year after year that it just wasn't gonna happen. So, I was just kind of relieved that I was finally gonna be able to go."
The students left for Hanamaki the morning of June 3, arriving in Tokyo that Sunday afternoon, Zunick said. They then spent the next week in Japan before traveling back on June 11, she said.
Students were able to experience Japanese history and culture, while making friends and staying with host families. Hot Springs hosts student delegations from Hanamaki, as well, where Japanese students are able to experience the same cultural exchanges, Zunick said.
"We also went to some tourist attractions, and one of them was the Miyazawa Kenji Museum, and that was amazing, especially like when we went later to the Dowa Mura, which is like the huge fairy tale village based on his stories," said James Nehus, an incoming ninth-grader at Hot Springs School District.
"That was an amazing experience. It's so well made, such a beautiful place," he said.
"Those students, while they were there, they visited schools, museums, areas of cultural significance, and hopefully, you know, they bring some of that culture back with them to share with their families here, with their friends, with their schoolmates," Zunick said. "So, and then hopefully, they will assist when we have student visitors come from Hanamaki."
Maddy Hamby, an incoming senior at Lakeside High School, became close with her host family, she said.
"I definitely think with that, like I have a lifelong host sister and host family," she said. "They're like, 'You're always welcome here.' They're welcome to come over here anytime. So, I think that'll really impact just having a friendship from across the world with such different views and cultures that will definitely impact my life a lot."
Another student who applied to go in 2020, but was unable to until this year, Skyla Dyer, an incoming senior at Mountain Pine High School, said the wait was worth the experience.
"I was really excited when I first got the news that I was going, and then it got pushed back and then we couldn't go another year, and so I was like, 'Oh, well it's probably not gonna happen now since I'm about to be a senior," she said.
"But then, my mom told me that it was, and I was happy again. So, it was upsetting that I wasn't quite gonna be able to go, but it wasn't bad," Dyer said.
"I admire the patience of the students who were selected in 2020 to wait this long to finally be able to go in 2023," Zunick said. "There is so much anticipation, and this is really a pivotal point in many of these students' lives."
Some students haven't traveled outside the country before, she said.
"Most years, we have students who have never flown before, so talk about a cultural overload. I mean, you take this international trip abroad without your family, with students from all across Garland County. Many of the students don't know any members of the delegation before they start preparing for the trip. So, it's truly once in a lifetime."