Karleen C. Chinen

It’s hard to believe that many of the pioneers of the 25-year-old Hawai‘i-Okinawa Student Exchange Program are now parents themselves whose own children are, quite possibly, today’s youth ambassadors of goodwill, experiencing what their parents did in Hawai‘i a quarter of a century ago.

For 25 years, high school students from Hawai‘i and Okinawa have been crossing the Pacific Ocean, experiencing life in each other’s homeland through people-to-people interaction.

Each spring, the program brings as many as 25 high school students from Okinawa to Hawai‘i for a two-week-long educational experience that takes place both inside and outside the classroom. The students live in the homes of volunteer host families with a high school-age child. The Okinawa student attends school with his or her host student and participates in the family’s daily activities. Hawai‘i’s diverse ethnic mix has exposed the Okinawan students to a variety of cultures, foods, lifestyles and communities, thus expanding their view of the world.

In early summer, the Hawai‘i students complete the “exchange,” spending two weeks in Okinawa, where they live with a high school-age student and his or her family, oftentimes the same student they hosted just a few months earlier. The opportunity is available to all Hawai‘i students, but those who host an Okinawa student are the first considered for the Okinawa side of the exchange.

The exchange has proven to be a learning experience for the students from both shores of the Pacific. Rarely do they leave the last evening’s aloha party without tears in their eyes as they say good-bye to their host student and family. Some students stay in touch even after returning home. Social media has contributed greatly to the ease in communicating across the ocean and in keeping friendships alive.

The Hawai‘i-Okinawa Student Exchange Program was established in 1989, the result of a bill introduced by then-state Rep. Dennis Arakaki. The program represented a partnership between the Hawai‘i and Okinawa education departments. Among the bill’s co-sponsors in 1989 were then-state Rep. — and now governor of Hawai‘i — David Ige. The legislation passed and was signed into law by then-Gov. John Waihe‘e. The student exchange program was implemented during former state Sen. Charles Toguchi’s tenure as superintendent of Hawai‘i’s DOE.

For its first 20 years, the program was funded by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Sister-State Program and executed by Hawai‘i’s DOE. The Hawaii United Okinawa Association assisted the DOE as a community partner. But when state funding was cut five years ago, the HUOA stepped up and took over the program, feeling it provided too valuable a learning experience for both the Hawai‘i and Okinawa students and their host families to allow it to end.

The program is now funded through donations to the HUOA. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the program, former superintendent Toguchi, the son of immigrants from Okinawa, raised $10,000 for the program from among his family, friends and business associates.

The itinerary for this year’s students from Okinawa included a visit to the State Capitol and a meeting in the fifth floor offices of Hawai‘i’s first Okinawan governor.
Now that must have been something to text home to Okaasan and Otoosan.

The following are essays by two recent Hawai‘i participants in the student exchange program — Kassie Odo and Nikki Chinen (the daughter of a friend of mine) — and one Okinawa student, Shiho Hateruma. Special thanks to HUOA executive director Jane Serikaku for sharing Shiho’s essay.


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