Wilton High School has welcomed a new exchange student this year — 16-year-old Elise Spijkerbosch, of Ehime, Japan.
Located on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Ehime is a 2,192-square-mile prefecture with a population of about 1.4 million.
“Everything is really new for me,” said Elise, who is spending 10 months in Wilton and completing her junior year at Wilton High School, thanks to the Rotary Club’s exchange student program.
Wilton High School is much different from her school back home.
“In Japan, we have to wear uniforms, and school rules are really strict — like you can’t wear makeup and you can’t have your phone,” said Elise, who arrived in Wilton in August and enjoys playing the piano and singing in her spare time.
“And in Wilton, you switch classes, but in Japan, we stay in one class and [the teachers] change classes.”
Another difference Elise noticed is the way students get to school.
“There are no school buses in Japan. To get to school, we bike, take the train, car or walk,” she said.
“You can’t really walk in Wilton because the roads are more dangerous — Japan has more space to walk and bike.”
This year, Elise — who is staying with the Whittaker family — takes a school bus with her host-sister, who is a freshman at Wilton High School.
Elise said the side of the street people drive on in the United States is also new to her.
“In Japan, they drive on the left side of the street,” she said, “but here in Wilton, they drive on the other.”
Although she speaks English well, Elise said it’s sometimes hard to understand others — especially students at the high school, who, she said, “speak really fast.”
So far, Elise said, her experience in Wilton has been “really fun,” and she thanks the Rotary Club for giving her the opportunity to experience a different way of life.
“The program is designed to have students experience other countries, meet the people there one-on-one, and become part of the culture and understand it,” Elizabeth Edwards, Wilton Rotary’s youth exchange officer, told The Bulletin last year.
Rotary Club exchange students are in the United States on a visa with a “very specific purpose,” said Edwards.
This means students like Elise can’t travel far and aren’t allowed to work. These limitations, Edwards said, are meant to protect exchange students, ensure their safety, well-being and compliance with international rules.
Although “there are no standards of academic performance,” said Edwards, that doesn’t mean exchange students like Elise can skip class. They just are not required to earn certain grades.
“The exchange program is a cultural experience more than it is an academic experience,” said Edwards.
When her time as an exchange student is up, Elise said, she hopes to one day come back to see her host family and also explore more areas of the country like the West Coast.
“I really love Wilton,” said Elise. “If you see me, please say hi.”