"Don't go in trying to predetermine everything that's going to happen or might happen. Just be open and observant, embrace that, and then what are you going to do with that new knowledge?" (Sylvia, Episode 16)
Sylvia Sturgis, my "neighbor mom", has been my neighbor for most of my life until just recently. I went to school with her daughter from elementary through high school, and we've always been friendly. However, I didn't get to know her closely until early in 2017, when she invited me to visit the Japanese Club that she was running at a middle school in Pontiac, Michigan. She and a small group of fellow educators/administrators were preparing a select group of 11 middle schoolers to go on an exchange trip to Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, Japan in the fall of that same year (Kusatsu is the sister city of Pontiac). When I showed up that one Tuesday afternoon I thought I was just there to be a guest speaker. But I kept showing up on subsequent Tuesdays, and eventually became a teaching assistant or language consultant of sorts, as I helped two other volunteers teach Japanese to these young "ambassadors".
This exchange program was an unprecedented initiative for that school district, but that's not to say that it came out of the blue. Back in 2016, Ms. Sturgis was selected to join a group of educational researchers that were sent to Japan on behalf of Wayne State University's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. Since 2015 had been the 70th anniversary of the tragic nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ms. Sturgis and her fellows were in Japan not just to enjoy themselves and explore, but also to work on projects relating to how to facilitate further peace between Japan and the United States. During this 10-day trip, they visited Tokyo, Kusatsu (Shiga Pref.), and Hiroshima.
The 2016 trip was a dream come true for Ms. Sturgis, as she'd applied to go to Japan through a similar Michigan-based initiative in 2005 but wasn't accepted. It was also the first time that she was able to travel outside of the Americas. But she wasn't content to let this dream be hers alone; she wanted to spread the opportunity around to her students! She couldn't help but notice that the black and brown student population she served was a lot like her when she was growing up; many had never left Pontiac or Michigan, and most didn't have the money to travel. So Ms. Sturgis and a school official from Pontiac (who was also one of her fellows during the peace studies trip) got together, assembled a group of like-minded people, and developed an exchange program so that young people in Pontiac could go to Japan too! In fact, many of Ms. Sturgis' students who were 6th graders at the end of the school year in 2016, applied and were selected that fall to be among the 11 ambassadors going to Japan as 8th graders in the fall of 2017.
Achievements worth replicating as well as missteps to improve upon
From January to October both the students and the chaperones worked incredibly hard to become as culturally, linguistically, financially, and logistically prepared for this chance of a lifetime. And they pulled it off! Sure, there were bumps in the road, but what's most important is that these amazing young people got to spend 12 days in Japan, going to school with Japanese students the same age as them and being exposed to innumerable new experiences, the city of Kusatsu took wonderful care of them, and everybody made it home safely. I didn't get to join them, but I was still so happy for everyone involved! Now Ms. Sturgis wants to keep the program going, sending a new batch of 8th graders to Japan every two years. And now, the facilitators and chaperones of the future have an example to draw from, with achievements worth replicating as well as missteps to improve upon.
Having studied science at Eastern Michigan University with intentions to become a nurse, Ms. Sturgis kind of stumbled into teaching in 1999 when Michigan was experiencing a teacher shortage. Though she hadn't originally envisioned becoming a teacher, she loved (still loves) children and found the work to be rewarding. So she went on to become certified and continue in a career that has now spanned almost two decades (she's mostly taught 6th grade for the past few years). In those 20 years she has earned a Master's degree in leadership from Concordia University, and has earned credits toward a PhD from Oakland University. While Ms. Sturgis is a dedicated in-classroom teacher, she would also like to get more involved in educational consulting in the future. And of course, she'd love to travel more as well. Ms. Sturgis can be reached on Facebook (Sylvia Boykins-Sturgis).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Fix Your Face (JAPAN)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"Discovering Japan in the 21st Century: Reconciliation with the Past" project (Wayne State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies)