Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Thirty years ago, an innovative idea became a reality: to create an exchange program for students to learn firsthand about diverse cultures, fostering their global awareness and sense of internationalism. In 1990, the Hawai‘i-Okinawa Student Exchange Program was established through a partnership between the Hawaii State Legislature, the Hawaii Department of Education, the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education and the Hawaii United Okinawa Association. The goal of the HOSEP program was to help promote cultural exchange and sustain good relationships between the Okinawa Prefecture and the state of Hawai‘i.
Over the decades, the program provided many experiences that participating Okinawan and Hawai‘i high-school students and host families would remember and cherish for a lifetime. This year, we celebrate three decades of cultural learning and understanding, and an establishment of long-lasting friendships and relationships.
Last June, a Hawai‘i contingent of 16 students and two chaperones participated in the 30th Anniversary held in Okinawa. It was a heartfelt experience for the daughter of the late Jane Serikaku, Michelle Whaley, who attended the event on her mother’s behalf. Serikaku — former executive director of the HUOA, and coordinator of the student-exchange program — was recognized for her significant contributions towards the Hawai‘i and Okinawa communities and to the HOSEP.
Through this exchange program, Hawai‘i and Okinawa students both have an opportunity to live each other’s lives, gaining new perspectives and understanding of another culture. As an HOSEP chaperone and co-coordinator, I have witnessed many participants who, inspired by their two-week experience, furthered their study or involvement in Okinawan culture or motivated others to participate in the program. In fact, one of the program’s former students was encouraged to join in — not only by her older sister who took part in this program, but also by her mother, one of the HOSEP’s first participants. Hopefully as we witness more of these deep connections, they will encourage future generations to perpetuate this program for decades to come.
For many Hawai‘i students, their two-week experience immersed them in Okinawan culture. Attending school in Okinawa and participating in cultural exchange with other students opened their eyes to the customs and routines that are vastly different from those they experience when in Hawai‘i.
The Okinawan students immediately form a special bond with the Hawai‘i students when they come to Hawai‘i as they are quickly introduced to the flavors and diverse customs of our community. The two-week homestay experience for both the Hawai‘i and Okinawa students has strengthened relationships, broadened perspectives of culture and history and established fond memories that will last a lifetime.
Each year, as the Hawai‘i and Okinawa students prepare to depart for their respective homelands, they return with lasting connections and immeasurable friendships. For the HUOA, this has always been the HOSEP goal: To inspire a new generation of Okinawans and Okinawans at Heart to perpetuate this program and our culture.
For information about future HOSEP opportunities call HUOA at (808) 676-5400, or email email@example.com.
For the past 27 years, Tom Yamamoto has worked at Iliahi Elementary School as a classroom teacher, acting vice-principal and most recently, distance-learning coordinator. He also coordinated and advised Iliahi’s student council, the Iliahi Dragon Cafe Scholarship program and ‘ukulele group Na Kamali‘i O ‘Iliahi. Yamamoto is also involved in the Hawaii Okinawan community. He served as the 2016 president of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association, chaperone and co-coordinator of the Hawaii-Okinawa Student Exchange Program from 1996-present and currently contributes as advisor of the HUOA executive council.