Secaucus High School students who are members of the local chapter of the Junior State of America (JSA) took to the skies recently on an all-expense paid two-week trip to Japan. The trip is courtesy of the Japanese government in conjunction with the Japanese Foundation for Global Partnerships, who recognized the “youth ambassadors” for their donations and contributions to tsunami-stricken victims in 2011.
The trip is a study tour from March 3 through 16 for 23 JSA students and their chaperones. While they are touring Japan, the cultural exchange continues as 28 Japanese students are visiting Secaucus High School from now until March 24.
“On Jan. 22 the state of New Jersey recognized the JSA members as Youth Ambassadors for the state of New Jersey,” said JSA Advisor and history teacher Michael Gehm.
“I wish [Thomas Abramowitz] was here to experience this,” said eleventh grader Bethany Mancuso of the JSA. Former student Abramowitz began the fundraising effort called “Operation Japan” but was unable to take the trip since he is now a college student.
With the approval of Gehm, students reached out to community organizations, other JSA chapters in New Jersey, and state and local officials for assistance. The end result was four truck loads of donations to be sent to Japan.
“It was an experience that our students will forever remember as a highlight of their high school years,” said Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina. “We couldn’t be prouder of our students and we are proud to be associated with the Junior States of America organization.”
“You have set the bar so high for anyone that walks through our school district.” – Board Trustee MaryAnn Weiner
“Secaucus High School was honored by a visit from 136 Japanese students to express their gratitude for the massive relief effort following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011,” said Randina. “A week after the Japanese students departed, representatives from the Laurasion Institute, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnerships and Mr. Kigure, the consul cultural attache in New York, contacted Mr. Gehm to express how impressed they were with the town of Secaucus, the school district, the JSA, the high school students and how well they were treated during their visit.”
In January, Councilman Gary Jeffas read a joint statement from the state Senate and Assembly recognizing the JSA as ambassadors for their commitment to foreign affairs. The legislation was sponsored by Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez and Senator Nicholas Sacco. The JSA was presented with keys to the city that would be distributed to people in Japan at their discretion.
The local chapter was recognized at a Board of Education meeting on Thursday, Feb. 28 with a reception and awards ceremony. The dignitaries who attended included Deputy Consul General Fumio Iwai and Consul Cultural Attache Masakazu Kigure. The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership was represented by Noriko Yamamoto and Miyu Chiba.
Iwai was presented with a plaque for his recognition of the Secaucus school district. Gifts were also given to Kigure, Yamamoto and Chiba. Gehm was given a certificate of appreciation and the JSA were also awarded. Randina said it was “one of the most important events I’ve officiated.”
The JSA’s accomplishments led to being chosen as one of eight schools nationally to visit Japan. Secaucus High School was the only Hudson County school district chosen for the prestigious trip. The JSA chapter has 120 members but only 23 students went to Japan.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and we’re extremely grateful to the Japanese government,” said Gehm.
“The way Secaucus parents and the way the school community trains its students is to put people first,” said Randina.
“I’m delighted to wish the Secaucus Youth Ambassadors well for their upcoming trip to Japan,” said Deputy Consul General Fumio Iwai. “We’ll be happy to see American youth with an interest in Japan.”
Iwai told JSA students to cherish the experience, and wished that he too had been given the opportunity to experience different cultures just as they have.
Gehm said that JSA students never imagined how immense “Operation Japan” would become.
“It wasn’t something we set out to do, it took on a life of its own,” said Gehm.
Members of the Board of Education thanked the JSA for offering a helping hand to Japan.
“You have set the bar so high for anyone that walks through our school district,” said Board Trustee MaryAnn Weiner.
Students eagerly awaited their departure on Sunday, March 3.
“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve been through in my life and knowing that we worked for it makes it feel more worth it,” said Mancuso of the JSA. “Our entire school and community were genuinely happy for us.”
‘They have to go’
Gehm, who is confined to a wheelchair, pleaded with the Secaucus Board of Education to allow the JSA students to take the trip to Japan even though he couldn’t accompany them due to accessibility issues. The Japanese consulate contacted Gehm to notify him that many places the JSA would visit are not wheelchair accessible.
“It’s not about me, it’s about them,” said Gehm.
The 23 members of the JSA that are visiting Japan from March 3 to 16 are 10th graders Kush Shah, Abubakr Ahmed, Jennifer Jernstedt, Kai Nelson, Maya Reyes, and Victoria De La Rosa; 11th graders Bethany Mancuso, Matthew Grillo, and Saahil Kapoor; and 12th graders Abdii Kassa, Akhmad Ernazarov, Camille Cunanan, Frankie Vanoni, Krystal Aguilar, Michael Vu, Munir Rahbe, Samia Sheikh, Sean Jeffas, Shanie De Chavez, Shaun Sengupta, Shiven Patel and Tyler Glover. Their three chaperones are Thomas Tufaro, Helen Bacigalupo and Pavlina Zavorotnyaya.
Vanessa Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org