Tomodachi Program promotes friendship across cultures

by University Communications,

Birthday parties, barbecues, dance recitals, hiking trips — while routine or familiar activities to many of us, they are quite intriguing to the Tokyo International University students who come to Salem every year for Willamette’s American Studies Program (ASP).

The Asian students often celebrate these activities quite differently than we do — if at all — and many of them relish the chance to see how Americans do things outside the university’s borders.

Enter Tokyo International University of America’s Tomodachi Program. Named after the Japanese word for “friend,” the cultural exchange program pairs ASP students with local families who invite them to participate in activities or celebrations about once a month — from holiday gatherings to kids’ soccer games to Sunday dinners. For volunteering families, it’s a less-intensive commitment than a traditional “host family” scenario where foreign students live in Americans’ homes.

“We try to welcome the Tomodachi students into our family life,” says associate professor of law Warren Binford, a regular volunteer in the program. “They come to our home and build gingerbread houses, learn to make American food and witness American traditions and culture as we experience it. … They love seeing American homes and meals. They are very curious!”

Lisa Holliday, associate dean of Campus Life and director of Student Activities, is also a frequent Tomodachi volunteer. She often invites the ASP students to participate in holiday traditions, such as watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“One thing that’s nice about the program is that it doesn’t involve any extra work,” she says. “You don’t have to come up with special activities — you just incorporate the students into what you’re already doing.”

Holliday and Binford agree that their own families reap some of the biggest benefits from the program. Both say they appreciate the chance to help their children learn more about other cultures.

“The Tomodachi students always enrich our family’s life with their personalities, stories and interest in America and our culture,” Binford says. “In turn, we have learned some Japanese language, calligraphy, origami and more. We love to share our culture with them, but we also love what we learn from the students.

“As the world becomes smaller, it is critical that we and our children get to know our neighbors and their culture and values through direct contact, not just by relying on media portrayals, stereotypes or governments. The Tomodachi Program is a way for us to discover and learn from one another, and in the process, to lay the seeds of peace and understanding for future generations through cultural exchange.”

About the Tomodachi Program

  • ASP students are paired with local families to meet regularly for cultural exchanges.
  • Volunteer families can participate for a full year or just one semester, either in spring/summer (April through June) or in fall (September through December).
  • Volunteers do not have to be members of the Willamette community, although they must go through an application process and background check.
  • To apply: Contact Barby Dressler, TIUA director of university relations and special programs, bdressle@willamette.edu, 503-373-3330.