The Salem-Ota Cultural Exchange is pleased to announce that Connor Heenan, a graduating senior at Salem High School has been awarded this year’s Scholarship award, presented during the Salem High School Senior Awards Night. He will be using this scholarship as he attends the MassArt this fall.
He, and the other applicants for the award, were asked to write an essay about their involvement with the exchange; how it affected their life; and how it will influence their future.
His award-winning essay:
My family began our involvement with the Salem Ota Cultural Exchange program when I was in the fourth grade at Saltonstall Elementary School. My best friend at the time was Reed Oka-MacLaren and his mom, Midori, was overseeing the student exchange program. Midori thought that my family would be a good match to host a Japanese student because we were active, liked sports and were an open to meeting new people. That summer our family hosted our first student, Kaito, and thus began our tradition of hosting Japanese exchange students. Since that time we have hosted 9 students in all, both boys and girls, with some years having just one student and other years being asked to host 2 when there was a need. We have totally enjoyed it and look forward to hosting students each summer.
Before our first student arrived, we were very nervous. Questions like, “Would he like us”?, and “How are we going to communicate with him if he did not speak English?”, went through our minds. Our worries quickly dissipated because despite the language barriers, we managed to communicate very well with him using a little creative miming, the use of technology and lucky for us, a few friends who spoke Japanese. We bridged the gap between our differences and realized that our common interests and similarities far outweighed our differences. We found common ground in video games, sports and finding humor in silly things like all kids do. Since then I have realized that all of our students have been different in their personalities, interests and English fluency abilities, because they are all individuals, but I discovered that what we have in common is our humanity and ability to communicate and relate to one another as new friends.
The program has affected my life in that now I have friends in Japan that I communicate with during the year that I might never have known if I hadn’t participated in this program. It’s not just that I met them as acquaintances. I lived with them for a week and heard about their family and life in Japan and and shared my family, my bedroom, my American culture and my friends with them. They became friends and extended members of our family. We exchange Christmas cards and messages on Facebook and Instagram with them, especially when something happens in the United States or Japan that sounds concerning. I was so proud when I saw the different students that we had over the years perform for the whole program at the end of the week. I realized how much it meant to them when I saw them cry when they had to say goodbye to us, calling us their American family.
Participating in this program has influenced my whole world view by showing me that everyone, even people from across the globe, are more or less the same. Everyone likes playing games and good humor, everyone likes ice cream and cookies, everyone gets sleepy and even homesick. If nothing else, I believe that this amazing program’s purpose, is to show the kids, the parents, and the teachers exactly that, we are more the same than not.