In the summer of 1973, foreign exchange student Eriko Kinuta arrived in Titusville ahead of the start of the school year. She would join the Titusville High School Class of 1974 during their senior year, experiencing the culture of the United States and making many friends along the way.
Now, close to half a century later, she has returned to Titusville to celebrate the 45th reunion of her graduating class, getting the chance to tour the halls of the school she attended and to catch up with all of her former classmates.
Hailing from a residential neighborhood roughly an hour’s train ride from the center of Tokyo, Eriko, whose last name is now Nakamura, was one of two students who were sent to Titusville as part of a foreign exchange program run by the American Field Service, the other being a German student by the name of Peter Lutz. She remembers having to go through a rigorous selection process to be picked for the program, one that included multiple tests, interviews and submitting reports from teachers and friends.
An interest in the English language was the driving force for Nakamura in attempting to be a part of the foreign exchange program. She had studied English during her time at an all-girls school in Kawagoe, and even currently works as an English teacher for adults.
“Of course I had to study other subjects (as a high school student), but especially English was so interesting to me,” she said.
After getting approval from the AFS, Nakamura became one of a group of roughly 100 Japanese students sent to America through the program. She would become a guest of Dr. Bruce Hague, whose own daughter, Zara Hague, was also taking part in a foreign exchange to Peru at the time.
Almost immediately Nakamura noticed something different about her new home. Unlike Japanese cities like Tokyo, she could get across all of Titusville on foot in only a day. That is, when she was able to get into the city in the first place. As Bruce Hague lived in the countryside outside of the city, she needed to take a car to get into town or even to go visit a neighbor, far different from the interconnected railways of Japan she was accustomed to riding on.
Despite the differences, Nakamura came to appreciate the landscape.
“I was really surprised, but it was beautiful — beautiful trees, beautiful rivers and clean air,” she said.
However, shortly after Nakamura came to visit, she experienced a major shock when she found out she and Lutz were going to be a featured part of the Oil Festival parade that year. The two would ride in Bruce Hague’s vehicle, waving to the crowds as they drove by.
This was a major departure from what Nakamura had known, as, according to her, parades are relatively rare in Japan, and usually reserved only for very famous people.
“So that was a really good experience, but somehow a little bit embarrassing for me to be in the parade,” Nakamura said.
Once the school year started, Nakamura quickly began finding friends among the student body of Titusville High School. One of those friends was Gayle Walters, who bonded with the Japanese girl and remains acquaintances with her to this day. Walters was a foreign exchange student herself some months before Nakamura came to Titusville, spending time in Germany. As such, she had some familiarity with what Nakamura was going through, and the pair began hanging out regularly.
“We laughed a lot,” Walters said. “I remember laughing a lot. We did a lot of the goofy things you do in a small town.”
There were still some instances of cultural misunderstandings, however. Nakamura said many students asked her if there were still samurai in Japan, and also that several didn’t even know where her native country was located exactly.
“It’s such a small country,” she said. “Now, many people know, but they thought Japan could be a part of China or something.”
While she had studied English, Nakamura said her skill with the language wasn’t always the best, and she often had to ask people to say things again. However, she said many of the students were happy to help her out.
The structure of an American high school was something Nakamura had to get adjusted to, as the way classes are done in America are very different to Japan. In her home country, all of the students stay in the same classroom for most of the day, while the teachers for different subjects rotate in and out, rather than the students moving from classroom to classroom between periods.
Further, Nakamura said Japanese students have much less freedom in what kind of classes they can take until their senior years. She took advantage of this added freedom, joining the school choir and becoming a member of the volleyball.
One thing that Nakamura quickly adjusted to was the food. She said she was never a picky eater, and found herself greatly enjoying her host’s dishes.
“Mrs. Hague was a really good cook,” Nakamura said. “So I put on a few pounds.”
Overall, the whole experience was full of fond memories. Nakamura can recall having fun going trick or treating on Halloween, skiing at Peek’n Peak and enjoying herself so much that she wished she could have stayed longer by the time it was over. In fact, Nakamura now greatly enjoys going abroad, something she does so frequently thanks to her husband’s job.
“I love to visit other countries and talk to the people and see how they live, how they do things,” she said.
Through her time in Titusville, Nakamura said she gained a better understanding on other ways of life and how people live. After returning to Japan and finishing her high school education there, she went to college and majored in international relations, a decision she thinks may have been caused by her stay in the Queen City.
As years passed, Nakamura kept in touch with several of her friends from Titusville through email, telephones and other forms of communication, including hand-written letters from her former classmate Lorraine L’Huillier. She said she constantly thinks of revisiting, last managing to come to Titusville in 1994. To her, the experience was life-changing.
“As an 18-year-old student, it was my first experience to live out of Japan,” said Nakamura. “Living out of my country gives me a broader way of thinking or perspective.”
The Titusville High School Class of 1974 will hold reunion activities all week, including a walking tour of the school and a dinner at Cross Creek Resort today, and a hike along the Oil Creek Park bike trail on Sunday.
Ray can be reached, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.