DELAWARE, Ohio -- When Erin Hope was 12 years old, her mother saw a flier for an international exchange program sponsored by Ohio 4-H.
"She just decided, ‘OK, we'll host a Japanese exchange student.’ And we fell in love with the program," Hope said. Over the years, her family hosted two more month-long Japanese exchange students and a yearlong exchange student, and both Erin and her older brother visited Japan on two-month exchanges as part of the Labo International Youth Exchange Program.
Ten years later, Hope is about to embark on another adventure: She was selected to be one of three interns from the United States and Canada in the yearlong Labo Intern Program in Japan.
Labo is a Japanese youth organization focused on helping its members improve their English-language ability and learn about other cultures. It includes homestay and academic exchange programs for young people in Japan, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and China.
Hope was one of three Ohio 4-H members who were selected as finalists for the internship earlier this year, said Mary Lynn Thalheimer, program director for the Ohio 4-H International Program, which is a partner of Labo in the U.S.
"We couldn't be more proud of Erin and our other finalists," Thalheimer said. "Erin will be a wonderful ambassador for Ohio 4-H, Ohio State University Extension, and the state of Ohio in general."
Hope said her experience as president of Ohio State's Japanese student organization in 2011-12 helped prepare her for her internship duties. In addition, she credits her long experience in 4-H, particularly being a 4-H club officer and participating on the Junior Fair Board's Dairy Committee, to help set her on firm ground. "It helped push me out of my comfort zone," she said.
Laryssa Hook, 4-H educator with OSU Extension in Delaware County, agrees.
"I remember Erin as being more quiet and reserved, but 4-H and the Junior Fair Board gave her experience in managing records and in working with others and with the public. I think those skills will be helpful for her on her internship. We're pretty proud of her."
During her internship, which begins in early September, Hope will attend Labo club meetings, traveling to different districts and staying with host families throughout the year. She will also help other interns coordinate activities at Labo camps for newly arriving exchange students.
"Labo ends its exchange program with a camp," Hope said. "When I went in 2009, it was great. There were hundreds of kids from that area, plus the participants from the U.S. and Canada. You all live together and do activities together. There's a real connection with the kids, you feel like family. The experience made me realize that despite our differences, we still have a lot in common and the world is much smaller than we realize."
Now, after graduating in June with an Ohio State University degree in Japanese, Hope feels more confident in her language skills but is glad to know that the first month's training program includes a language school. "I'm excited to think I'll be fluent by the time the program is over," Hope said.
Primarily, though, Hope is looking forward to working with the kids.
"Japan isn't a very diverse country, but that's the goal of Labo, to broaden horizons," she said. "I'm looking forward to helping (the members) see and understand that there's a whole other world outside of Japan."
Hope also is looking forward to learning more about her host country. As part of the program's visa requirements, interns need to complete an independent study project on an aspect of traditional Japanese culture. Hope will study washi paper-making.
"I'll be studying the whole process, from the plants it is made from, to making the paper, to what washi is used for." Her project may help her when she returns to the U.S. in August 2013, when she hopes to attend graduate school in art and design.
Ohio 4-H is the youth development arm of OSU Extension.