2024 Scholarship Winner

The Salem-Ota Cultural Exchange is pleased to announce that Jessica Valatka, a graduating senior at Salem High School has been awarded this year’s Scholarship award, presented during the Salem High School Senior Awards Night. She will be using this scholarship as he attends the University of Massachusetts Amherst this fall.

She, 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.

Her award-winning essay:

Through the Salem Ota Cultural Exchange, my family has hosted exchange students yearly since I was in elementary school, and we recently traveled to Japan for the first time last summer.

This exchange brought me a larger sense of family, a closer connection to culture and community, and greater overall compassion. As a kid, the students that came to stay with us were extraordinary role models. I was very timid, and often struggled to communicate, and the students taught me how to communicate and socialize beyond words. Despite communication often being a confusing barrier, we were able to create fun and adventurous memories that I still think fondly upon today. I learned how to care and support people through my actions, as we exchanged thoughtful hand-made gifts (such as drawings and origami), sang songs (my close friend, Maria Schild, and I made “Peel Banana” very popular in the 2015 exchange), and played games together throughout Salem. I even learned more about Salem than I otherwise have, as we explored historic sites and found new places to enjoy. I was captivated when hearing students play piano or a sport very well at the exchange parties, and found new meaning in dance. I always looked up to them, and wanted to be as talented, kind, and uplifting as them when I grew up. The homestays only lasted a week, but at the end they were called our sisters and brothers, and it was surprisingly heart-wrenching to leave them without knowing when we’d meet again. The tears and hugs are as memorable to me as the fun activities, and since then I have strived to create bonds with others as strong as the ones I made through the exchange.

Going to Japan was life-changing. Re-uniting with past exchange students in their hometown felt like a new layer of our bond, and it was inspiring to see how much the impact of our friendship had lasted many years later. It also showed me a new side of my passions and hobbies, as I enjoy art, nature, and urban sustainability. I was brought to excellent art spaces and natural sites (with Nikko’s waterfalls being my favorite), and was inspired by the Bullet Train and the popularity of biking. I met so many kind people who went out of their way to teach me new things and support my curiosity in various topics in Japan, from Ghibli and Buddhism to matcha and the most popular dogs.

My future will undoubtedly be affected by the kindness I received throughout the Salem Ota Cultural Exchange. As someone who wants to study sustainable urban planning/design, I know that I want to make sure my work in reshaping urban spaces includes providing opportunities for community building, cultural exploration, and expanding family in ways such as this. No matter what path my future takes, I know I will be successful if I can build family and friendships like the ones created through the exchange.