For just over 20 years, Wellington and Sakai have been sister cities. And for 20 years, the Wellington Nakano Educational Society (see WNES on Facebook) has been exchanging young secondary school students between schools and families here and in Sakai. Over this time 400 students have participated in the programme.
In the latest round Wellington College and Newlands College have hosted 26 fourteen-year-olds over two weeks from the end of July. The main features of the programme are the home-stay arrangements, time in the schools and excursions around Wellington.
The most important part of the exchange every year for the students of both cities is that they stay in family homes, live within families, experience how their host brothers and sisters study and have fun; see the busy work schedules of the parents; and enjoy the hobbies and entertainment. The best way for a young person to learn something about another culture is to live for a while with a family in that other country. Despite language barriers, the guests quickly learn the conventions of normal weekday home life and then are usually treated to the local tourist highlights in the weekends.
In the first week, the visitors are split up between the two host schools. The schools provide a Kiwi cultural welcome. The students attend normal classes where, it has to be said, they may be slightly at a loss, and they are provided with specific ESOL classes.
In the second week we showcase what New Zealand does best, some outdoor experiences, albeit in the dead of winter. The students spend three days in the Wairarapa, climbing, tramping, high wire balancing, and sightseeing. On their last day back in Wellington they visit Zealandia (this year with a sighting of the amazing kakapo, Sirocco) and rides horses in the Ohariu Valley, courtesy of the Wellington Sakai Association. Many of our guests have never seen a horse in the flesh, let alone ridden one.
The students of the first Wellington-Sakai exchange are now 35 years of age. None of them will have forgotten their positive experience in Sakai and in Wellington in 1994. Many of them are now moving up the management ladder, making decisions in business and government and health and education – to name but a few professions. Their careers are accelerating at precisely the time that new technology such as social media and easier international communication means the sister city relationship can move ahead.
Like sister city arrangements, educational exchanges are not about short term payoffs or even medium term government policies. Their benefits come over decades, and it's thanks to wisdom of leaders and officials in both cities that the exchange has been so successful over the past two decades.
The final event is a farewell dinner, this year addressed by the Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown. A spokesperson for the students made a thankyou speech and the whole visitor group performed a fishing dance. It’s always striking how close are the friendships that have been quickly established between the students and their host siblings. The evening finishes very slowly with innumerable happy group photos.