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Disaster in Japan could alter travel plans for student ambassador program

ST. PETERSBURG — The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, rapidly followed by escalating fears of a nuclear crisis, have riveted observers worldwide.

Even as temporary residents and visitors flee by the thousands, though, others watch, wait and optimistically continue with plans for travel to the beleaguered nation.

St. Petersburg, encouraged by sister city Takamatsu, is making arrangements for two students to travel to Japan this summer and has extended the application deadline for the goodwill ambassador program.

"They are eager to welcome our students,'' said Elizabeth Brincklow, manager of Arts and International Relations.

"But, of course, we are watching carefully for any developments that may occur."

Others are, too.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Rotary International general secretary Ed Futa recommended that students sponsored by the organization return home "in order to best allow Japanese Rotarians to address their immediate needs and begin recovery.''

Al Kalter, of Rotary Youth Exchange Florida, said it is uncertain what will be decided about students selected from the organization's eight districts to travel to Japan this summer.

"Whether or not some of them will have to go to another country is going to be a factor of what the students and their parents prefer and also what our colleagues in Rotary in Japan tell us,'' he said.

Officials at the Ayusa Study Abroad program in California, which sends about 30 to 40 students to Japan each year, also are watching the situation closely. For now, the organization is moving ahead with its summer and fall programs.

"Our spring program, scheduled to start in April 2011, has been postponed,'' director Joe Roma said in an e-mail. "It is likely that these students will go to Japan as part of Ayusa's summer or fall programs.''

Brincklow said St. Petersburg's decision to extend the application deadline for the nine to 12 students who typically apply, had nothing to do with the March 11 disaster.

"I had a request from one of the schools that had been a high participant in the past for more time," she said.

Joe Cariz, a junior at Shorecrest Preparatory School, plans to apply for the exchange program.

"I just want to go to Japan to really expand my cultural horizons and because I've always wanted to go to Japan,'' he said. "It's cool, because it is similar to the Western world in a lot of ways, but at the same time retains a lot of its own unique Asian culture.''

Cariz, 17, won't let the recent disaster deter him. His parents are supportive.

"They feel that as long as I'm not in any grave danger, I should be fine,'' he said, adding that he'd like to help with relief efforts while he's there.

This is the 50th anniversary of St. Petersburg's sister city relationship with Takamatsu, located in Japan's southwestern region, away from the ravaged areas to the north.

The city's International Relations Committee, made up of two council members — currently Jim Kennedy and Steve Kornell — and 11 mayoral appointees, sponsors two high school juniors for the three-week summertime trip. Those who apply must write an essay and submit their grades, extracurricular and school activities, as well as recommendation letters. Brincklow said applicants tend to have a global view and a high interest in Japanese culture.

"Typically, applications come in at the last minute, five minutes before the deadline. They are typically hand-delivered and the students are usually very excited," she said.

The two students selected will receive round-trip airfare to Takamatsu and live with Japanese families. In turn, St. Petersburg will host four Japanese students, one more than usual this year. The city is looking for eight families to host the young visitors, with each family hosting a student for one week.

St. Petersburg also is making plans to join Takamatsu, located more than 300 miles from Tokyo, in its effort to send money and relief supplies to the devastated areas, Brincklow said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

. Fast facts

Student ambassadors

High school students completing their junior year in 2011 who are legal residents of St. Petersburg can apply for the student ambassador program to Takamatsu, Japan. Applicants will be interviewed by members of the International Relations Committee. For information, or to download an application, go to stpete.org/Japan, or call (727) 551-3250. Applications must be received by the city's Office of Arts and International Relations at City Hall by noon Friday.

Disaster in Japan could alter travel plans for student ambassador program 04/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2011 5:30am]
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