Any difficulties in understanding each other were allayed by a cheerful smile and an enthusiastic “thumbs-up” from Seina Imano when asked about her impressions of New Paltz. The 20-year-old nursing student was one of 17 health sciences and early childhood education students from Niimi College in Okayama, Japan, who visited New Paltz last week accompanied by their English professor, Kiyoshi Yamauchi. With his assistance translating for the students at a “sayonara” party on Friday, September 11 at the Reformed Church on Huguenot Street, Imano conveyed that she found our community to be “peaceful,” and very friendly; similar, in fact, to her own hometown of Niimi, she said.
That similarity in the two places is part of the reason that Niimi-shi, Japan, and New Paltz formed a “sister city” relationship. The whole thing started back in 1998, when the president of SUNY New Paltz at the time, Roger Bowen, was approached by the Japanese Consulate to start a sister city program. Since the state college cannot have such a program, explained Tom Nyquist, Village of New Paltz mayor at the time, Bowen came to him to see if the village would be interested.
The proposed sister city was Osa, a small town on the large Japanese island of Honshu, located west of Osaka. It was considered a good match as sister city for New Paltz because it had a similar population and geography and the two shared common concerns. So Nyquist and his wife, Corinne, made a visit to the city of Osa, reciprocated by a visit to New Paltz from Osa’s mayor, Kazumi Umeda.
The New Paltz International Exchange Association (NPIEA) was formed, and as the two towns established a relationship, reciprocal visits were made by the students of Osa Junior High School and New Paltz Middle School and between SUNY New Paltz and Niimi College. Jason West led a delegation as village mayor to Osa for that town’s 50th anniversary in February, 2005, but within months the towns of Osa, Shingo, Tetta, Tesei and Niimi were merged into one political entity called Niimi City. In 2010, then-New Paltz Village Mayor Terry Dungan visited Niimi, where he formalized a sister city relationship with Mayor Masao Ishigaki of Niimi through Sister Cities International.
Since then, there have been regular visits from Japanese students to New Paltz, but no reciprocal visits. Tom Nyquist, still a member of the NPIEA committee, said he’d like to explore some avenues with a few teachers at the college to get some student visits going again from here to Niimi and possibly establish an adult exchange program at some point.
Vici Danskin of NPIEA said that the students who visited New Paltz last week paid their own way to New York and were then hosted in the homes of local residents in New Paltz, Gardiner and Highland, generally in pairs. (The 17 students included only three boys, so they stayed together at the Nyquists’ home.) This was the first time out of the country for most of the students, who spent a few days in New York City after leaving New Paltz. “They’re a delightful group,” she said.
Student activities on their visit to our region included the recreational, from visiting Walkway Over the Hudson and hiking the grounds of Mohonk Mountain House, to the educational, making hospital and clinic visits organized for the health sciences students by SUNY Ulster’s director of International Programs, English professor Richard Cattabiani. “We had a great time,” he said. “They’re lovely people. We look forward to continuing the program.”
Early childhood education student Ena Ichikawa, 18, was understandably shy about speaking with a reporter, but with encouragement from professor Yamauchi said that she thought New Paltz was “a wonderful place,” and she would love to come back to visit. Her group’s meeting with young children here convinced her, she said, that “children are the same everywhere.” Rikuro Nitta, 20, a nursing student, said that he thought people in New Paltz were “very kind people with a nice nature.” He plans to care for mental health patients after finishing school, and said his favorite activity the group did while here was hiking at Mohonk, noting the beautiful scenery; a sentiment echoed by the other students.
Regardless of their majors, all of the students are taught English at Niimi College, said professor Yamauchi, with it being a requirement for everybody. “One week here isn’t long enough for them to master speaking it fluently,” he said, “but it motivates them to learn more English when they go back.”
This was Yamauchi’s 16th visit to New Paltz, he said. And his favorite activity?
Going out for pizza.