On a Friday morning in a Lower Columbia College classroom, a group of students were having a simple conversation in front of their class, nervously giggling the whole time.
Despite appearances, they weren’t chatting during a break: They were Japanese college students practicing their English.
For the fourth straight year, Atomi University, a prestigious women’s college located in the Tokyo suburb of Niiza, has sent students to LCC to strengthen their English skills and teach them about American culture. This year, Atomi sent 12 students and one chaperone.
LCC International Programs Coordinator Keiko Pedersen said it’s crucial for these students, who study many different subjects, to be proficient in English.
“It’s really difficult, studying English in Japan, because English is not (their native) language, and English and Japanese are so different,” she said. “But most places, English is a worldwide language. Some of the students in here would like to work as a flight attendant or staffing airports, so they have to have some English skills.”
Students from Atomi began visiting LCC in 2014 thanks to a collaboration with Longview’s Japanese sister city, Wako, which is close to the women’s college. Each student pays nearly $2,500 (not including airfare) to study in Longview for a month.
According to Pedersen, more Atomi students visit LCC each year, and the Longview college is working on starting a true exchange that sends American students to Japan.
“It hasn’t happened yet, but in the future, we’d like to actually exchange. We still need to build up the program,” she said.
Pedersen said the Japanese students, who are staying with host families, study English each morning for three hours and participate in a different class or activity each afternoon, from chemistry to U.S. history and even rock climbing. One of the students, 19-year-old Misaki Akiyama, joked that scaling LCC’s rock wall was “very scary.”
The students have also visited off-campus spots such as the Nippon Dynawave (formerly Weyerhaeuser Co.) papermaking plant, Longview City Hall and the Longview Fire Department. On the weekends, Pedersen said the students’ host families are expected to show the young women around the Northwest.
“That’s a part of their learning, because they learn about American lifestyles, just everyday life here, because it’s very different from Japan,” she said about the host families. “Usually, their host families take them on weekends to go see different places, like Seattle and Portland.”
Regardless of where their host families take them, the Atomi group will spend a couple days in Seattle after leaving Longview on March 3. When three of the students were asked what they were most excited to see in Seattle, they unanimously exclaimed, “Starbucks!” and laughed.
Pedersen, translating for the three students, said they preferred U.S. colleges’ more hands-on approach to teaching, versus Japanese college courses, which are lecture-heavy.
The students also told Pedersen that they were taken aback by LCC students’ public displays of affection on campus.
“It’s very common here (for couples) to kiss just before leaving class and they hug,” Pedersen said. “That’s not usually common in Japan at all, so they were kind of like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ ”
LCC English professor Frances Hearn has worked with women from Atomi for two years, and she called them “excellent students” who were better with English than they would admit.
“They might not think they’re very good (at speaking English), but they’re very good with grammar and structure,” she said. “So we’re working on speaking and attaining confidence. They can write it. But to speak it, they need to practice.”
Hearn said she enjoys the students’ unique use of the English language. During an English-as-a-second-language science class she taught, one of the Atomi students described a cell by saying “it looks like it splashed the color red into the sky.”
“I love that when they use our language, they create metaphors that we would never think of,” Hearn said. “They put words together in ways that we don’t normally. Something might be grammatically incorrect, but it’s such a beautiful line that you don’t want to mess with it.”