By Heidi Zemach for SCN
The City of Seward and Seward International Friendship Association, SIFA, are struggling with a painful realization, that visiting Obihiro, Japan, Seward’s Sister City since 1968 may not be a high school student’s number one priority these days. In fact, SIFA’s own president Jim Herbert suggested at last night’s council meeting that travelling overseas to Japan may well not be considered “the cool place to go” anymore. There are a lot of other things competing for their attention. There’s a high rate of employment among local teenagers in the summer time, and they’re busy working, trying to earn enough to pay for their cars or college, he said. Also, employers may not want to release these teen workers for two weeks in August, when many workers in college return to school.
Despite efforts by the city to recruit students to apply, beginning in early December, and reopening the application process again in January, not one has applied for this summer, said City Clerk Johanna Kinney. That led her to put a discussion about the issue on the agenda for Monday night’s Jan 29 council meeting. The challenge she suggested, was either do without this year, or do something to help cover the rising cost of airfare.
It’s an unfortunate embarrassment for Seward, as this year marks the 40th year of the annual student exchange program, and several city council representatives including the mayor recently completed a cultural exchange visit to Obihiro, where they were treated like royalty. Also, there’s a mural exchange underway by the Seward Mural Association. There have been a variety of exchanges between dignitaries in Seward and Obihiro since the Obihiro Economic Observation Group visited Seward in September, 1971.
Nobody knows for sure why it has been getting progressively more difficult to attract Seward’s kids to the program, but most folks still prefer to believe that the explanation is cost. Airfare prices have skyrocketed, said Deb Bond, the student exchange program coordinator. Last year the cost of airfare was $2,861 per student, an incredibly steep amount for a 9-10 day stay, and it is expected to increase with fuel costs. That limits who can participate, even with fundraising. Meanwhile, not only have the students stay in Japan been reduced from three weeks, but now other cost are borne by the students including train and bus fares and hotel costs.
“I’ve been over three times, and know the cultural enrichment, friendships, understanding, and I also know the challenges and time commitment concerned,” Bond said. She even considers her job co-ordinating a labor of love. “I love this program and hope you’ll consider covering half airfare or other costs,” she said.
“Three thousand dollars is a lot of car washes and a lot of bake sales,” Herbert added. Unlike when he was a kid, “the caveman days,” today’s teenagers have to prioritize what they want to do. It sure would be nice to have kids share the wisdom regarding the value of traveling to the sister city, “…but you’ve got to have a little bit of enthusiasm. It would be a bad idea to grab some kid and say,’ you’ve got to go to Japan!’ That’s not the way to do it.” The same has been true of the parents, who his group also has encouraged to get their children interested. “Again, no dice,” Herbert said. “It’s been a bit discouraging.”
Council member Christy Terry suggested that the council contribute $1,000 for up to two students, but added that there should also be some sort of litmus test —such as a language test for students receiving city tax-payers money to be allowed to go, to make sure they’re doing it for all the right reasons. The Obihiro students who come to Seward, and half of whose tickets are funded by their government, not only are studying English, but also must present an essay on themselves and their reasons for coming at the city council meetings. Council member Vanta Shafer also said it was important for the city to offer some form of help to students this year, as long as an effort is made for the program to be self-sustainable in future years. Council members also suggested that the student’s fundraising could be helped through contributions from the Seward Community Foundation, the American Legion or local seafood processors. But first you have to have the kids.