Language Camp Brings ATU, Japan Together

To help a fellow human during a time of adversity is compassion. To continue to help long after the spotlight has faded is character.

A delegation from Arkansas Tech University has displayed that trait for six consecutive summers by making the more than 6,000-mile trip to the communities of Rikuzentakata and Ofunato in Japan.

There, 16,000 lives were lost when the region was devastated by a tsunami in March 2011.

As those areas have fought to recover, one of their consistent points of light has been an annual visit from a group led by Dr. John Watson, distinguished professor of mathematics at ATU, and Yasu Onodera, associate dean for international and multicultural student services at ATU.

The ATU delegation offers an annual summer language camp that teaches English to children and serves as an assurance to the people of the region that they are not alone in their recovery.

“Everybody cares the first week after a tragedy,” said Jen Hurley, an Arkansas Tech information technology student from Russellville who made her first trip to work the summer language camp in August. “These kids…they loved it. They loved the STEM class. They loved the dancing. I know because I heard them next door. To be able to bring that level of joy to kids who have been through that much and let them know that people do remember them…I think that is important. If they remember that when they are older, even if they don’t remember anything else, maybe they will go on to make a difference themselves.”

For Onodera, the camp is an opportunity to unite the two places he calls home.

“Now that it has been six years already, this has become my life’s work,” said Onodera. “I feel like my life and my presence here is worthy of something. Japan is my home country, but Russellville, Ark., is my home as well. It is a fascinating opportunity and I feel so blessed to be able to connect these two families. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

The ATU summer language camp in Japan started as a project led by the U.S. Department of State. ATU became the sole provider with the assistance of international program funding from the Japanese cities served by the camp.

In addition to Watson and Onodera, other members of the ATU faculty who made the trip to the 2018 summer language camp in Rikuzentakata were: Jill Balaster, instructor in the ATU English Language Institute; Judy Crouch, international student admissions officer; Brandy Cunningham, visiting instructor of English; and Dr. Shellie Hanna, interim department head and associate professor of curriculum and instruction.

Hurley was joined on the trip by fellow ATU students Malynn McKay, Emily Torrealba and Jordan Wright.

One hundred Japanese children are served by the camp each year. They are divided by age into five classes: one each for pre-school, first grade, second grade, third grade and older students. Increasing demand for the program meant that parents interested in enrolling their child entered a lottery for summer 2018.

Successfully executing the four-day camp requires assistance beyond the ATU delegation. Onodera said that the mothers of the camp participants have become a driving force in the program’s success. He has also recruited additional translators, including Miharu Ono. A native of Miyagi, Japan, she is a student at Komazawa University and a former exchange student at ATU.

“(Onodera) asked me if I could join this summer camp, and I really wanted to,” said Ono. “It is close to my hometown, and I know this town was damaged by the tsunami. I wanted to help those kids and their parents. It was fun, but it was also hard. I took care of first grade kids. Some were used to speaking English, but some were not. On the second day, one of my students started crying because he was scared of learning English. As a volunteer it was my role to help him, so I tried to make learning English fun for him. After I helped him, he really enjoyed that class. The last day I could tell he was having fun, and that made me very happy. His grandma came up and thanked me for helping him, and that made me cry.”

Perhaps the reason the residents of the area are so thankful is because they haven’t had a sense of normal in their lives for more than seven years.

Onodera, who has participated in each of the six ATU summer language camps in Japan, has observed progress in some areas and less in others. The facility that hosted the 2018 summer language camp was a former junior high school with no air conditioning.

“We could see the ocean from the facility this year and the breeze from the ocean helped a little bit, but our view also included the temporary housing below,” said Onodera. “You realize that people are still continuing that lifestyle. Every time we go back things are different. One of the biggest changes I’ve seen has been in the commercial zones. They’ve built a shopping center with a library and a park. Those commercial zones are coming back really well. For the residential, it’s not there yet, and that’s why we still see people living in temporary housing. They are still trying to raise the elevation of the land, so until the foundation is done nobody can really come back.”

The annual ATU trip to Japan has expanded the last two years to include representatives from the Arkansas Tech Women in STEM student organization.

The idea for ATU Women in STEM students to make the trip started when Torrealba, founder of the organization, began asking her teachers about study abroad opportunities in engineering.

“To me, it was unbelievable that I gained this incredible experience just by asking a question,” said Torrealba. “There is a sincerity at Arkansas Tech. If you have a sincere, hard-working team, you can accomplish a lot. Wanting to go for the sake of the experience and helping others is powerful.”

This year, the ATU Women in STEM representatives spent their first week in Japan on an independent study project in Tokyo. They then joined the rest of the Arkansas Tech delegation and taught the children of Rikuzentakata basic concepts of physics and engineering.

The ATU summer language camp in Japan has persisted long enough that graduates are beginning to come back and serve the camp as volunteers. Onodera said that his dream is to have one of the summer language camp alumni attend Arkansas Tech, graduate and return to Rikuzentakata as a teacher.

“It would create a wonderful, beautiful cycle,” said Onodera.

While he waits for that dream to come true, Onodera hopes the summer language camp continues and the relationships between ATU and the communities of Rikuzentakata and Ofunato grow even stronger.

“It is always a memorable experience,” said Onodera. “It’s a sad moment when we have to say goodbye, but the last thing we do is shake hands with everyone, including our ATU team. That is very emotional. I’m always trying not to cry, but as soon as someone else does I can’t help it. It’s nice to know that I am surrounded by people with whom I can truly be myself and nobody will say bad things about me crying even though I’m an old guy.

“I did not know that I could do anything like this,” continued Onodera. “If you had talked to the Yasu of 20 years ago, I would have run and hidden. It’s too big for anybody to do. But the years of experience spending time with different cultures and people gave me, little by little, confidence and courage to bring this project forward. Anybody can do this if they don’t limit themselves.”