Student Story: Learning Japanese Culture as a High School Diplomat


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Emily Carder

Featured Writer

Poster clutched in hand, I self-consciously awaited the opening of the bus’s doors, surrounded by friendly yet unfamiliar faces as I wondered what the “best 10 days of my life” would hold. As the charter bus finally allowed the Japanese students packed within to come cascading out, I was carried away by the cheers of the many American students and families waiting in welcome. My nerves were immediately dispelled as I saw the face I had only seen through the grainy haze of hours on Skype sprint through the crowd. With her radiant smile and infectious enthusiasm, my soon-to-be roommate Sana nearly tackled me with such openness and joy that I knew my time as a high school diplomat would be an experience like no other. This was only the beginning of homestay, and as I watched the Japanese students’ initial performance of Sōran Bushi (a traditional dance which they would eventually try to teach us Americans) in a park nestled amongst suburban neighborhoods, I was floored that I would have the chance to see through the eyes of students from thousands of miles away. That weekend with Sana and another student Yuno blew by as we roamed like tourists through RVA and tackled American shopping. I had never laughed so much in my life or laid my heart bare so quickly – at least until the following week when I was surrounded by all 79 students who would change my life.

On the surface, High School Diplomats is a free cultural exchange program held at Princeton University over the summer that brings together forty American students from across the country and pairs them with Japanese counterparts. Building upon this roommate relationship, the program fosters greater understanding between the US and Japan at a time when politics in America continue to grow ever more divisive. With a focus on both diplomacy and cultural exchange, us students would fill our days with everything from cultural discussions and language classes to traditional Japanese ceremonies/dances and American holiday-themed celebrations.

Although my experience easily transcends words, I can at least begin by saying that the relationships I made in only ten days with students from Tokyo to Kyoto to Kentucky are unlike any other I’ve had before. With no previous knowledge of Japanese culture or language, I found myself in awe of the genuine connections I made over mutual fears and challenges – sharing truths about myself that I had discussed with no one else. I left not only with a deeper understanding of how people from across the world think and live, but also an incredible group of friends who constantly inspire me to seek diplomacy and reflection in everything I do.

Whether embracing battles of Jan-ken-pon (the more intense version of rock-paper-scissors) or donning the traditional Japanese yukata at Bunka no Hi, I was granted the opportunity to learn more about another culture, even in the smallest ways, and share my life as an American. I found that diplomacy extended beyond our open reflections, country presentations, and discussions of serious issues into truly understanding without judgement – by sharing vulnerabilities over meals, triumphing over hilarious miscommunications, or even connecting through an emotion without speaking.

From talking until 3 a.m. about school, religion, crazy American jōdans (jokes), and everything in between, to dressing up as Harry Potter and Hermione on “Halloween,” my roommate Sana showed me how to laugh openly and look beyond superficial impressions. Beloved by all of the counselors for her contrasting easygoing yet endearingly fierce nature, cute stature, and luminous spirit, Sana remains the sister I never had. I think about her, everything we learned and the bond that we share, every day when I see the anklet I always wear woven from a seemingly insignificant piece of yarn. This yarn was cut from an activity the Americans and Japanese students shared at the end of the program when tears were shed and our connections were forever ingrained into our memories.

To this day I talk almost daily with the 79 new members of my family. I would relive my time at Princeton if I could, yet now I have the chance to encourage anyone and everyone to apply, especially if you love people, culture, and international relations. I am incredibly grateful for what I, as with many past participants, call the best 10 days of my life!

Ready to Apply?

Eligibility: All current high school sophomores and juniors

Online applications open: 9/15/2018 – 1/8/2019 Selected applicants will be interviewed in late February or March; final application decisions will be made mid-April.

Program Dates: July 24 – August 4, 2019


Contact the American Director, Mrs. Celine Zapolski at (571) 234-5072 or

For more information, please check out the HSD website:



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