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Japanese Students Cope with Disaster

by Matt Benoit

Horizon Editor

As Japan continues to deal with the devastating effects of the 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami disaster that occurred on March 11, it is likely that no students at Whatcom Community College have been watching the developing crisis more closely than the 19 Japanese students here as part of the college’s international program.

Kelly Kester, Whatcom’s director of international programs, said in a campus-wide e-mail to faculty on March 14 that the students’ friends and family were only “peripherally impacted” by the earthquake and tsunami.  In a subsequent interview, Kester said all of the students had heard from their families.

A few years ago, though, Kester said Whatcom hosted a large group of students from Sendai, one of the cities most heavily damaged by the tsunami.

While some of those students transferred to universities in the U.S., others returned home to Japan. Kester said that Whatcom has been in e-mail contact with an organization in Montana that sent the students to Whatcom from the University of Montana, and that the organization would try to let the college know if they had heard from any of those students.

Another former Whatcom student who’s dealing with the disaster, said Kester, is a man who graduated last quarter and travelled back to his home country of Thailand to spend several months before he heads back to the U.S. to begin attending Central Washington University this summer.  As a member of the Thai military, the man is now doing disaster relief work in Japan.

In addition to former students in Japan, five new Japanese students are expected to arrive in Bellingham between March 27 and 28. They will be attending Whatcom during the spring quarter.

Kester said Whatcom has worked with the students’ other schools to try to find out what’s happened to them, but added that they are reluctant to be too aggressive in pursuing  information with all the likely difficulties those students may be facing.

“We hope that these students will get here,” Kester said, but added that if they cannot, it is certainly understandable. If that is the case, Kester said the college would help the students attend Whatcom at another time.  

All of this, he stated, is still secondary to making sure the students are okay and that the college continues to monitor the situation in Japan as it develops, especially with the uncertainty of Japan’s nuclear plant issues.  

Of the current students’ friends and families, Kester said the stories he’s heard about them mostly involve transportation inconveniences such as road closures or being trapped on a train. Other issues involve power outages, as well as houses being partially damaged or suffering collapsed roofs.   

Despite all the damage that has been caused, Kester said it is fortunate Japan does so much planning for natural disasters.

“They do an amazing job of preparing for these things,” he said. “Japan will recover, but it will take a lot of time.”

That recovery may be aided by Whatcom’s own, as Kester said members of several student clubs, including the International Friendship Club, are having conversations about organizing ways to collect donations for disaster relief efforts in Japan.  Some of the students had planned to meet March 16 to discuss those possibilities further.

“I’m glad that they’re so thoughtful,” Kester said.

Many of Whatcom’s faculty and staff have also sent e-mails expressing their thoughts and concerns for the Japanese students.


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