Hirosaki Short-Term Program

UMaine IEI hosts English language program with Japanese partner for 23 consecutive years

The UMaine Intensive English Institute (IEI) hosted a virtual English language program for students from Hirosaki University in Japan from Feb. 26–March 9, 2023. Tokuji Noro, professor in the Department of English, faculty of Education at Hirosaki University, recruited the students and organized the program again this year.

During the program this year, students participated in daily lessons with Hirosaki program instructors Cheryl Robertson and Gwyneth Esty-Kendall. The Hirosaki students joined the English program from 9 a.m.–noon Monday–Friday for two weeks during their vacation between their fall and spring semesters. The UMaine instructors offered the classes from 7–10 each night due to the time difference.

“Working with Hirosaki University students and this program through IEI is always an honor,” said Robertson. “At the beginning of the program, my students share with me their trepidation at speaking English out loud. By the end of the two weeks (that’s all!), they have had a myriad of experiences with me, their host families and conversation partners, and each other. This community building on an international level is what I love about working with the Hirosaki program, and that initial fear of speaking English is gone.”

Esty-Kendall noted that she is grateful to be in her third year of working with Hirosaki University students. “Every year it is such a joy to teach students while also learning about their cultural experiences,” she said. “I appreciate the opportunity to witness students build confidence in their English skills and to see the positive impact this program has on each of them in such a short time!”

The classes were a success and the students were able to engage with the English language through both written and spoken communication. Students participated in a presentation about the IMRC lab at UMaine with Drew Hooke during the first week of the program. The following week, Adriana Cavalcanti, IEI administrative staff member, offered a presentation on Maine Indigenous culture by introducing a video published on the Emergence Magazine about tree migration and the impacts on the Passamaquoddy traditional knowledge on basket making.

“The goal of the program is two-fold: that is, improving English skills and deepening cross-cultural understanding,” said Tokuji Noro, professor of English at Hirosaki University. “For the last three years with the COVID-19 pandemic, we were left with no choice but to change it into a virtual program by remote learning. We thought we would have to discard the cultural learning part, but thanks to the enthusiasm and sincere dedication of those involved, especially host families, we were able to enjoy as much success as we did in the regular on-site programs”

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Hirosaki students participated in conversation activities with current students of the University of Maine, many of whom were part of the Japanese language classes taught on the university campus. “The conversation partner’s activity has been the core part of the program since the beginning of this program,” Noro said. “Students engage in authentic communication in English with UMaine students, which they can hardly experience back in their home country. The online format of activity seemed to enhance the interactions among students, probably because it ‘fits’ in their communication style.”

“This program has been something that I’ve found truly rewarding and exciting as a previous student who studied in Japan. It was great being able to speak with and teach the students more about English as a second language,” said Shania Soler, a conversation partner participant.

A vital part of the program calls for students to have a host family. When the program was held in-person, students would stay with their families and learn more about the culture and the language; however, IEI still strived to keep a similar dynamic for students to have the best experience possible during their program. As such, IEI implemented a virtual host family aspect. Students were connected with families in the community and were able to interact with them via email, messaging, and video calls on platforms such as Zoom and Skype. Many were initially worried if the virtual homestay experience would contribute as much or even a similar amount as that of an in-person experience.

“In the past regular on-site programs, students always enjoyed and learned a great deal from their homestay experience, but we were afraid that the virtual program might not contribute much to their learning. However, as the saying goes, ‘an attempt is sometimes easier than expected,’ and voila, the Zoom sessions suddenly became places of such rich cultural exchanges,” Noro said. “Both the students and host families were able to deepen their cross-cultural understanding mutually.”

In 2021 and 2022, John and Ginger Hwalek were virtual host parents to Eimi Kasai and Ayane Oshima, two students studying education at Hirosaki University. Eimi and Ayane planned to participate in the Hirosaki Program in Maine this year, but the 2023 in-person program was canceled and switched to virtual due to the pandemic situation. Kasai and Oshima were determined to come to Maine, so they worked with Noro and UMaine IEI to have an abbreviated
study abroad experience during their winter break. John and Ginger gladly hosted them.

Each morning they joined IEI language classes to work on their English skills. They experienced campus life including basketball and hockey games, a concert at Minsky Hall and exercising at the New Balance Student Recreation Center. Off campus, they saw a live production of “The Secret Garden,” went tubing at Hermon Mountain and visited Acadia National Park. They also got to spend a day at Mary Snow School in Bangor observing classes and even taught the students how to count to ten in Japanese.

“Imagine them teaching Japanese to American students in English! What an experience for these future teachers,” the Hwaleks said. “At home we shared our cultures. We cooked both American and Japanese meals, watched Ghibli movies and American classics and read children’s books in English and Japanese. One lasting impact of this is that Ginger is now a natto addict.”

Kristina Weaver and her children from Orono, Maine, volunteered as a host family for the program. “Our family has been participating in the program for three years, all remotely,” Weaver said. “We decided to participate as a way to experience different viewpoints and share our love for Maine. It is a great opportunity to both help others learn, and learn ourselves. We particularly value the chance to show our kids how things are both different and the same in other places. The remote program has also given us more confidence about opening our home. We look forward to when we can host a student in person!”

The virtual program IEI hosts each year bolsters an international connection with a university and students that are thousands of miles away. It opens up a bridge between two cultures and allows a joint learning to take place; a feat that has been proven stronger than any type of pandemic thanks to the continued motivation and support of not just the educators and community members, but the students as well, both international and local to UMaine.

“It’s a model that I have enjoyed, on site, and even on Zoom for the last three years. All folks involved with this program are to be commended for their sincere appreciation for teaching and working with all the students” said Cheryl Robertson, Hirosaki program instructor.

This program creates a link between two universities and two communities. May 25, 1994, the state of Maine created a sister state connection with Aomori province in Japan. Aomori province is the region where Hirosaki University is located. Students from Hirosaki University can participate in this short program, and then pursue a semester or full year study abroad at the University of Maine.

Kaho Ikeda made such a choice. She participated in the 2021 Hirosaki virtual English program and arrived at UMaine on March 18 to join the IEI program in person. Ikeda will spend the next 10 months in Maine improving her English language skills, traveling around the state, taking university classes and making new friends.

“I had wanted to study abroad since entering the university, however due to the COVID-19, I was not sure when I would be able to go abroad,” said Ikeda. “That is when I came across the Maine Program. This UMaine virtual program gave me meaningful experiences. Even if it was online, I was able to communicate with my host family, students, and teachers. Also they took us [virtually] to the museum, taught us how to bake blueberry muffins, and we even danced Zumba together! It was virtual but the experiences were real.”

Orlina Boteva, director of the Office of International Programs at UMaine, is very happy to see a partnership that started with UMaine participating in a state of Maine Governor’s mission to Japan, organized by the Maine International Trade Center in 2001, create such a lasting legacy.

“The program began in February-March, 2001 and continued every February–March until the year 2020, after which we had to do it online for three consecutive years in 2021, 2022, and this year, that is, 2023. The total number of participants counts 372 including this year!” said Noro, who has been at HIrosaki University since the beginning of the collaboration with UMaine.

IEI plans to continue this program for the coming years and hope to offer the program in person in 2024.