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Making friends at a new school is tougher during the pandemic, but a DODEA program aims to help

Jasmine Vina, left, helps Haley Black, a new student at Edgren Middle/High School on Misawa Air Base, adjust to life in Japan through the Pacific Students Transition Program.

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By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2020

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TOKYO — Lunch breaks, field trips and football games are events where students make friends when they arrive at a new school, something the children of service members do often.

The coronavirus pandemic means those things have been canceled or happen online or with masks and social distancing, making it more challenging for kids to make new friends. But a pilot program at six overseas military schools in the Pacific aims to help.

“Normally, kids go to the teen center or meet at sports events,” said Pamela Tucker, who coordinates the Pacific Students Transition Program at Edgren Middle/High School on Misawa Air Base in northeast Japan. “Normally you meet somebody at the football game, but we’re not having football games this year.”

Students in the program take a personality test and are matched with local students with similar likes, she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The program also introduces new arrivals to local culture, Tucker said.

“We don’t want them to come to Japan and stay on base for a whole tour and never interact with the Japanese culture, so we create cultural experiences for them,” she said.

Because of pandemic restrictions, that interaction is happening online. So far, the 15 kids in Edgren’s transition program have done virtual tours of Japanese museums and aquariums and language training with local Japanese schools.

Students in the program are linked up with peer tutors for subjects where they could use some help, Tucker said.

The program also helps departing students by introducing them to transition programs at other military schools or available programs at regular schools, she said.

One of those helping new students adjust to life in Japan is Jasmine Vina, 18, daughter of an Air Force maintainer.

Vina knows what they’re going through. When she moved to Misawa in 2017 from Aviano, Italy, her transition assistance wasn’t much more than a tour of the school, she said in a telephone interview Friday.

Kids moving into new schools during the pandemic might find it harder to make friends but the friends they do find are probably more genuine, Vina said.

Many of the kids arriving at Misawa are on their first overseas tour, she said, and the transition program allows them to interact with students who have been in the same situation.

Lunch periods, when students usually talk to friends, are limited with fewer people allowed in the cafeteria and separate dining cubicles. Vina and her friends have been hanging out with the new arrivals and taking them to off-base restaurants such as Off the Wall and Tubes, which both serve Hawaiian food.

One of the new students Vina has helped is Haley Black, 17, who arrived from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, last month.

“Covid made it harder to make friends because it’s difficult to connect and gather,” she said in an email Friday, referring to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

The transition program has helped her connect with her new school and classmates, Black said.

“I have only been in the school 3 weeks, but I have had a blast,” she said. “I have attended a cultural viral field trip, game night, dance battles, and … a meet and greet luncheon.”

Black said she’s made friends through the program.

“They are fun and caring,” she said. “They are just like me, trying to make the best of a senior year that is seriously impacted by covid.”

The transition program is also running at McCool Elementary/Middle School on Guam, Yokosuka Middle School and Kadena High School in Japan, and at Osan Middle High/School and Humphreys Middle School in South Korea.

“We’re looking to bring the other schools in the Pacific by this time they open in August next year,” Tucker said.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1

Edgren Middle/High School students Destiny Jagers, left, and Brianna Sanchez play a game while participating in the Pacific Students Transition Program at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
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