Bay Area welcomes Tohoku students

George Suzuki. photo by Jon Kawamoto

George Suzuki. photo by Jon Kawamoto

George Suzuki will never forget March 11, 2011, the fateful day that Japan was slammed with three disasters — a 9.0 earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami that killed thousands and a nuclear meltdown that shook the nation to the core.

He knew something was wrong, terribly wrong. His family’s home in Miyagi Prefecture began to shake, shake and shake, violently, so much so that the chimney crashed.

Fortunately, Suzuki’s family came through it all safe and sound. But surviving those terrible disasters has given the 17-year-old Suzuki a newfound drive and desire.

“I’d like to see how I’d do in the business world,” Suzuki said. “And I’d like to see what kind of country America is.”

Suzuki was one of 300 high school students from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami affected areas of the Tohoku region who took part in the Tomodachi SoftBank Leadership Program, which runs from July 23 to Aug. 10 at the University of California at Berkeley. The program was funded by SoftBank Corp., a telecommunications giant in Japan that’s run by Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son, a 1980 UC Berkeley alumnus who majored in economics.

In response to the triple disasters, the Tomodachi initiative was formed as a public-private partnership led by the U.S. Embassy in Japan and the U.S.-Japan Council. Tomodachi invests in the next generation of Japanese students to strengthen cultural and economic ties between the United States and Japan and to deepen the friendship between the United States and Japan.

All of the students are receiving full scholarships through the program. Of the 300 students — 200 girls and 100 boys — 70 students are from Iwate Prefecture, 125 students are from Miyagi Prefecture and 105 students are from Fukushima Prefecture.

The three-week program was developed in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools. The curriculum, an adapted version of the university’s Y-Plan, involved discussions on global leadership and community service. The students developed individual community service action projects to implement in their home communities in Japan.

During a welcoming reception held July 24 at the Wheeler Auditorium, Son — via video presentation — hoped that the students would get a taste of what he experienced as a UC Berkeley student.

“I saw a totally different culture at Cal,” he said, explaining that everything — the English language, the American food, the Bay Area people, the climate, the student body and professors — were “totally different” than what he’d experienced back home in Japan. “It was exciting every day, a totally new experience. It really stimulated my brain, my way of thinking.”

Son said his experience at Cal has helped SoftBank, too, because it enabled him to see, envision and plan his company with a broader, global view.

“I hope that you get something for yourself in these next three weeks,” Son said. “Please remember that I always care about you. I’m always with you in my mind and heart.”

Earlier, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos told the students that the “first, most important thing to do is to have fun.” He said the Bay Area is an “amazing area,” and said the students would be exposed to and experience some amazing things during their stay.

Roos urged the students to “use your English. Practice it while you’re here. To compete in the global world, it’s important to learn English.”

Roos also praised the unique educational environment at UC Berkeley and told the students to take advantage of learning as much as they can while there. And, finally, Roos encouraged the students to use their iPads — given to each and every student — to take photos, record their thoughts, their feedback and impressions.

“You were selected from 2,000 students,” he said. “You are an important group of young people. I look forward to seeing you back in Japan and hearing about your experiences from the Tomodachi SoftBank program.”

Judy Sakaki, a member of the U.S.-Japan Council and vice president of student affairs at UC Berkeley, encouraged the students to “think big and dream bigger.”

Roos and Sakaki were part of a welcoming panel, which included: David Beiser, director of grant programs, Ayusa International and program director, Tomodachi SoftBank Leadership Program; Scott Biddy, vice chancellor for university relations at UC Berkeley; Hiroshi Inomata, consul general of Japan in San Francisco; Mayo Hotta, office of the CEO of SoftBank; Sherry Carpenter, executive director of Ayusa; Makiko Boyden, managing director, Asia at Ayusa; Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley; Deborah McKoy, executive director at UC Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools; and Menraj Sachdev, manager of grant programs at Ayusa and program manager of the Tomodachi Softbank Leadership Program.

Some of the events the students participated in included: building water purification kits with the Berkeley Rotary; a reception with Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Hiroshi Inomata; attending and being the special guests at an Oakland Athletics game; a community service project with the City of Berkeley; meeting with Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi; a home stay weekend with Bay Area host families; a presentation by Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant founder Yoshi Akiba; and a trip to Sacramento to meet with state lawmakers and special guests.

Ayusa International, a nonprofit organization founded in 1981, helps promote global learning and leadership through cultural exchange, study abroad and leadership programs for high school students from the United States and worldwide. To date, it has helped more than 50,000 students. Ayusa is responsible for all operational aspects of the Tomodachi SoftBank Leadership Program.

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