When she was only 16, Maresa Manzione left home and traveled to Japan for a short home-stay experience. Later, she spent time there as a university student. Throughout all her time across the sea, she learned to speak Japanese, made friends throughout the country, tasted their foreign foods and was forever impacted by her experiences. Now, over 25 years later, she runs a program that brings Japanese Exchange Delegates to Utah — it’s all come full-circle.
Since 2016, Utah non-profit, Mountain West Cultural Exchange, has brought Japanese exchange delegates and Utah families together to build friendships around the world. The nonprofit works with UTREK, a non-profit in Japan that arranges for Japanese delegates ages 10-18 to come to Utah for an immersive cultural home-stay with American families.
“This experience makes the world a smaller place,” Maresa Manzione, Chair of MWCE, said. “A lot of families in Utah aren’t going to be able to go to Japan in their lifetime — but by bringing these delegates to your home, the experience comes to you. … My children and neighbors have all been blessed with an expanded view of the world because we’ve participated in this.
These Japanese boys and girls come to the United States excited to learn about American culture and share their own. It’s custom for them to bring gifts for their host families, and they’ll often cook a traditional Japanese meal, like the savory pancake okonomiyaki. They come ready to adventure with their host families and learn about life in Utah. Whether it’s playing with LEGOs, cooking, hiking up the mountains, going for a bike ride, camping or watching TV – these delegates come to experience whatever it is their host family enjoys.
The Hadley family from Ogden loved their time with their delegate, Kano.
“Our family had an absolute blast with Kano last year,” Brett Hadley said. “We went to an Ogden Raptors baseball game, a parade, golfed, played lots of games and learned about Japanese culture as well. We absolutely loved this experience and look forward to doing it again in the future.”
The Merrill family from Tooele, hosted an exchange delegate named Maiko almost 10 years ago. Her host sister, Bailee Merrill, who was 16 at the time, keeps in contact with Maiko and will be visiting her in Tokyo this year.
“I’m so grateful my family hosted exchange students when I was younger,” Bailee said. “It helped me look outside my little Utah bubble and know the world is much larger than it appears. I have a deeper respect and appreciation for other cultures as well, not just Japanese culture. I can’t wait to visit Maiko in Japan this year and dive into her native culture. I shared a bit of my life with her, and now she gets to show me her world.”
This program provides a special experience for Utah families to get to know a foreign culture, expand their worldview, foster new friendships and share their beautiful state with that new friend.
Hosting dates happen during the spring and summer, with the spring session happening March 25 – April 4, and summer between the dates of July 28 – August 14.
Spring delegates’ profiles are currently up on the website and ready to be chosen by a host family. Both dates require host families to have at least one child for the exchange delegate to have a friend.
Mountain West Cultural Exchange is also taking applications for Utah teen counselors, ages 14 to 18. Teen counselors help find host families, assist with exchange program activities and camp, and facilitate a meaningful experience for all Japanese guests. Applications are due by June 1.
To apply to be a host or to be a teen counselor go to mwce.website. More information can also be found on Facebook under Mountain West Cultural Exchange and Instagram: @mwexchange.
Submitted by Bailee Merrill.