Southern Hospitality

Blount volunteers welcome Japanese students into their families

To most teenagers, sitting in a rocking chair playing checkers at Cracker Barrel is a normal -- and perhaps boring -- East Tennessee activity.

For two teenage girls from Tokyo, it was part of an experience they’ll never forget.

Katherine Best Caputo and her husband, Ryan, hosted Manami Aoyagi and Sayuri Yanagisawa, both 14, as part of an independent study program through Maryville College. The program brought 25 teen students from Tokyo and 32 older teens from Argentina to Maryville. The students from Argentina, 16- and 17-year-olds, stayed on campus.

The Japanese teens lived in homes with host families. In the mornings their host families dropped them at the International House at Maryville College where they spent four hours in class. They spent afternoons enjoying tourist type activities throughout the area. The students then returned home in the evenings, ate dinner with their host families and learned more about American family life.

Katherine Best Caputo, director of Outreach and Alumni Affairs at Maryville College and her husband, Ryan, said they enjoyed having Manami Aoyagi and Sayuri Yanagisawa in their home. “They were so sweet and polite. The experience was awesome. When we dropped them off (to go home), they were both in tears, and I did tear up a bit, too,” Katherine Caputo said. “It’s amazing how attached you get to people staying in your home.”

Katherine said she and her husband’s routine didn’t vary much while the girls were with them. “We didn’t change our lifestyle too much, but we did take them to Dollywood. Who could come to East Tennessee and not go to Dollywood?” she said. “They loved that. We tried to give them the experience of living here. We took them to Cracker Barrel and sat outside and rocked in the chairs and played checkers. It was a simple thing to us, but to them, it was all new.”

Because of all the tourist-type activities the students did in the two weeks they were in Maryville, the Caputos didn’t have to plan too many activities, other than the trip to Dollywood.

“They cooked for us one night. It was so sweet. We had a pool party one day. They were so excited,” she said.

Katherine said the language barrier is always interesting. “At dinner every night, it would take 15 minutes to answer one question,” she said. “Figuring out what they were saying and what we were saying was part of the experience.”

Katherine said she and Ryan planned to do the program again. “I would say it’s worth it. They are going to remember us forever. That impact on someone’s life is pretty cool,” she said. “It is scary having to welcome a stranger into your home. How often do you have strangers spend the night in your home? It’s very personal. You kind of have to let down your barriers.”

John and Connie Huffman and their 8-year-old son, John Wilson Huffman, hosted 14-year-old Junya Matisuka. The first place Junya wanted to go to was McDonalds.

“We got him a plain hamburger and fries and a small strawberry shake. His eyes got huge. He said in Japan, that was considered large,” she said. “When they put down the medium sized Coke, the kid went nuts. He couldn’t comprehend our food portion sizes are so much larger.”

Connie said that the first night, communication was a challenge. “We had a 14-year-old from a different country in our home, and we were trying to make him feel welcome. John found a program on the Internet where you type in things in English, and it translates them to Japanese. We also used Google map, and he showed us the apartment he lives in,” she said.

Junya got to experience a wide variety of activities while with the Huffmans. “We took him to NASCAR Speedpark, which he absolutely loved. He had never fished before and John Wilson showed him how to fish. He went on a boat ride, and that was a little scary at first,” she said. “Can you imagine being 14 in a strange county with a family you know nothing about? He was so polite, and he always wanted to help. It was just neat.”

Connie said it was nice to communicate with his parents, as he did, via the Internet each day. “I don’t know that he would appreciate knowing the two sets of parents were talking about him, but it was reassuring. I hope if John Wilson does anything like this, he would have a good experience,” she said.

Connie said she would recommend the program to anyone interested in being a host family. “We will do it again. It was good. I was anxious to hear back from his parents. They said he got home safe, and that he was tired but excited.”

Micki Pruitt, coordinator of the ESL program and special study program, said there were two groups here this summer. The group from Argentina, which has been sending students for eight to 10 years, had students 16 to 17 years of age and one student even celebrated an 18th birthday at Maryville College.

Pruitt said the Japanese group was composed of 14- and 15-year-olds who lived with home-stay families, had classes in the morning and activities in the afternoon. “They would go horseback riding and rafting, which I think is the highlight of the trip, and we went to Atlanta. They flew back out of Atlanta,” she said.

The Japanese students were from Tokyo. “It’s the first time that this school has sent anyone here. We’ve had Japanese groups before, but none from the Meiji Gakuin School,” said Pruitt.

Pruitt said having students stay in homes with host families is a huge advantage. “They form those bonds that sometimes will last years and years.”

Pruitt plans the activities the students participate in during their two-week stay. “I try to look at what their needs are. Do they need more classroom time or are they coming for a cultural experience?” she said. “The fun is in seeing those students interact with their home-stay families and on campus.”

The special study program operates out of the International House at Maryville College. The house has an English as a Second Language program that runs year round. The Argentine and Japanese students were a special group of independent students who use the same faculty and resources the ESL program uses, she said.

“The special groups are basically people who come from abroad to study in programs in the United States, and we individualize and customize the program,” she said. “It’s a combination of ESL class and events and activities.”

Kirsten Sheppard, director of the Center for International Education, said this was the first year they’ve had the Japanese group and third year they’ve had a group from Argentina.

Sanna Serspinski, assistant director of International Administration and Recruitment, said teachers would talk about the activities to follow in the afternoon and would also teach specific topics such as grammar. “The teacher would explain the significance and history of the place and what they were going to see,” she said.

Sheppard said the International House and the ESL program are not involved with the selection of the students. “We work with a program through Japan called i2Planning and with the Argentine group, it was a program called Centro Educativo Latinoamericano. They do the selection of students in each country,” she said. “We act as the program support here.”

Sheppard said often it is the students’ first international experience. “They walk away with better insight into customs and language and of Maryville College and the community,” she said. “There is real benefit from having these students here because they’re integrated into campus life and into the homes of Maryville families, and we get that insight into their culture.”

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