As the 50th year of city sisterhood between St. Petersburg and Takamatsu, Japan, comes to a close, program organizers and volunteers are celebrating the half-century of friendship and looking for ways to expand its scope.
Over the summer, St. Petersburg High students Hayden Grant and Solomon Howard spent three weeks in Takamatsu and attended classes at Takamatsu Daiichi High, where Eckerd College graduate Edison Owens teaches English.
The International Baccalaureate students toured the city, practiced calligraphy and learned to make udon noodles. Grant, an avid sailor, participated in the Marine Day Regatta, while Howard got the chance to practice kendo, a sword-fighting martial art.
Howard limited his contact home, including social media, to immerse himself in the Japanese culture.
Since getting back, "I feel different," he said. "When you learn something new you become different."
After the pair returned home, four students from Takamatsu, including two from Takamatsu Daiichi, soon arrived for two weeks in St. Petersburg, where they toured museums, gazed in wonder at the number of breakfast cereals available at the grocery store, and met Hideki Matsui at a Rays game. One student bought a copy of Twilight in English from Haslam's Book Store.
For one of the weeks, David Fries, the director of the USF Ecosystems Technology Group and "entrepreneur in residence," hosted Takamatsu Daiichi student Yamato Takechi, who hopes to attend Yokohama University to study robotics, specifically as they can be used in environmental science.
Fries can envision a future where technology developed in St. Petersburg is exported to Takamatsu. As a port city, Takamatsu has many of the same environmental and economic concerns as St. Petersburg, leading to plenty of opportunities to share and develop technology relevant to ocean welfare.
On top of the potential economic benefits, the exchange program provides "a broadening of our world," said Fries, who has visited Japan three times. Being able to host Takechi was especially beneficial for his children, he said. "It's an eye-opening and broadening of their vision, a flesh-and-blood, real-people, positive reinforcement. Young people need to be globally minded."
During the visit, the Japanese students, members of the International Relations Committee and host families sat down for "Thanksgiving in July," a little bit of Americana that reflects the values of cross-cultural understanding and thankfulness, said Mayor Bill Foster.
"It's always great to have this cultural exchange," he said, "and it starts with the young people."
Since the relationship started in 1961, St. Petersburg has sent 47 student ambassadors to stay with families in Takamatsu during the summer. Eckerd College, through a related program, has sent 45 graduates to live and teach English in Japan for an academic year.
"People in St. Petersburg would be surprised to know how much this program means to the Japanese people," said International Relations Committee member Diane Morton.
At the moment, the relationship is an avenue for greater cultural and academic understanding, but the hope is to create rich economic ties as well, said Elizabeth Brincklow, the city's manager of arts and international relations.
The immediate goal is to create an artist exchange program, and possibly, business internships to supplement the student exchange, she said. The arts are one of city's six main economic drivers, she added, so for St. Petersburg, it makes sense to promote the arts internationally.
To expand the exchange program, the International Relations Committee is debating the creation of a nonprofit organization similar to the "friends of" groups that support local libraries and youth programs, said committee chair Beverly Mitlin.
A privately held nonprofit would enable more methods of fundraising, and possibly free the exchange program from the uncertainties of the city budget process. The student ambassadors' trips have been funded primarily by private companies and individuals, but freedom to pursue additional backing could allow for more students and increase awareness of the program locally.
The committee usually receives 10 to 15 applications a year. This year, possibly because of concerns about the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the group received only eight.