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Josie Till (right) poses with Sae on Olympic Day in the High School Diplomats program. Josie spent 10 days at Princeton University.
Olivia Till (right) was part of the High School Diplomats program in 2011. This photo is from a tea party while she was in Japan.
BY BRIDGET BALCH
For sisters Olivia and Josie Till of Spotsylvania County's Courtland High School, summer vacation is not a time for sleeping in or lounging by the pool.
They think they've found something better.
Last summer, Olivia, 17, spent a month in Japan. At the same time, younger sister Josie, 16, was at Princeton University in a 10-day, learning experience with students from Japan.
Both were participating in High School Diplomats, a cross-cultural program that brings American and Japanese students together to share experiences and promote diplomacy.
Every summer, the program accepts 40 American students and 40 Japanese students to gather at Princeton University.
The Tills said they learned of the High School Diplomats from Gloria Driest, coordinator of the gifted and talented program at Courtland.
"I was just really interested in all cultures," said Olivia. "Just to have the opportunity to learn about something so foreign and interesting was an opportunity I wanted to take."
Olivia attended the program in the summer of 2011 and Josie attended it this past summer.
During the 10 days, students share activities ranging from talent shows and sports tournaments to in-depth discussions and language courses.
Josie said her favorite activity was "Bunka No Hi," or "Day of Culture." That's when the Japanese students dressed the American students in traditional Japanese garb, cooked Japanese dishes and taught the American students calligraphy, martial arts and traditional dances.
To maximize the cross-cultural exposure, each American student is paired with a Japanese roommate and many of the activities are designed to enhance communication and form friendships between the two cultures.
"It's hard to put into words how close you can get to people in such a short time," Josie said.
Olivia said that she and her roommate made an agreement to call each other on Skype at least twice a month.
The program takes its alumni to the next step by inviting every American student who takes part at Princeton to apply to a follow-up one-month program in Japan.
Each summer, 20 are accepted to spend three weeks touring famous landmarks, meeting dignitaries and diplomats, staying with a Japanese family and participating in a conference in Japan.
Olivia was among the students who went to Japan last summer.
"You can experience so much," Olivia said. "To really just be immersed in the culture, to have Japanese food every day and be around people speaking [Japanese], to see a culture that is so far from the U.S. culture I thought it was the most interesting thing ever."
She said that going to Japan, where the culture tends to be very introverted, forced her to break out of her own shyness to communicate with the people.
Before participating in the programs, Olivia had no idea what career she wanted to pursue.
"[Going to Japan has] made me want to study international relations and have a better understanding of all cultures."
Josie felt the same after her experience, and she is planning to apply to go to Japan this coming summer.
"[It] just made me want to see what else is out there," Josie said. "I think before I was kind of closed-minded and focusing on what I wanted to do and not what was out there."
All costs for both programs are covered by scholarships for the students accepted.
Bridget Balch: 540/374-5444
Current sophomores and juniors can apply for the summer 2013 High School Diplomats program at Princeton until Jan. 8, 2013.
Applications can be found at highschooldiplomats.com.