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Japanese Students Dodge Disaster, Arrive at Arundel High

Students from Sagami-Ono High School near Tokyo endured major travel delays to arrive in Maryland as part of a student-exchange program.

Misato Sugawara was walking home from her school in a Toyko suburb with a friend on Friday when the ground began to shake.

“I didn’t realize it was the earthquake,” Sugawara said. “I thought I just had a headache. But then everyone ran, because there were so many buildings with glass.”

Over the next two days, while Japan dealt with the effects of the 8.9 earthquake and powerful tsunami, Sugawara endured major travel  delays to arrive in Maryland with 22 of her Japanese classmates as part of a "sister school" program with Arundel High School.

Standing in the auditorium at the Gambrills school on Monday, Sugawara and her English teacher, Hiroyuki Hayashida, recalled the harrowing effort just to make it to the Tokyo airport, first by bus, then by train, then bus again, before getting on a 13-hour flight.

“Usually we take two or three hours to the airport, but that morning it took nine hours,” Hayashida said. “On the way to the airport, we had no idea if we could fly, because the flight was delayed and there was the possibility the air company would cancel the flight.”

The students came from Sagami-Ono High School, just below Tokyo and about three hours south of where Friday’s earthquake and tsunami hit the hardest. The students said they’ve been in touch with relatives by email and that all loved ones are safe, though they were concerned about reports of damage to nuclear reactors.

Arundel High Principal Sharon Stratton said she and her staff were in constant contact with officials from the Japanese Embassy and Dulles Airport over the weekend, uncertain if their guests could arrive. Arundel students, meanwhile, received updates from their Japanese counterparts via Facebook and text messaging. 

“We worried if they’d be able to make it or not, and how they’d feel once they got here having had an experience like that back home,” Stratton said. “We prepared for them coming and maybe being emotionally distraught.”

But spirits were high Monday, as the Arundel students greeted the Japanese guests with a short chorus concert–including a rendition of a Justin Bieber pop hit–and presentations from Sen. Ed Reilly and Delegate Mary Ann Love.

The students took a tour of Annapolis on Sunday, and over the next week will sit in on classes and take part in special activities, while living with Arundel students and their families. Two Japanese teachers traveling with the students will interact with Arundel faculty and even take in a St. Patrick’s Day feast at Kaufmann’s Tavern on Thursday.

“The things we’re going to learn this week, you can’t learn in a textbook,” said Sherri Bilheimer, coordinator of the signature program. “It’s an amazing experience for these students and they’re overwhelmingly excited. Some of them are already asking me ‘when are we going to Japan?’”

Scott Goyette, an 11th-grader at Arundel, is hosting Japanese student Taichi Utsugi for the week.

“I think it’s great, especially that we can help them out after what’s going on in their country,” Goyette said. “They were really looking forward to coming and I’m glad they could still come.”

The school announced that the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce and Odenton Rotary Club will be raising funds for earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan. 

Stratton said she hoped her students would come away with an appreciation of another culture and think more globally.

“It’s always been my vision to not be so traditional,” she said. “Let’s think outside the box. This is the kind of program that makes them understand that their world isn’t just their own high school. There’s so much out there and there’s so much to learn.”

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