The Bradenton Herald is going international, as I am preparing for my odyssey in Asia.
From now through May 22, I will be volunteering in schools in Tokyo as a teaching assistant and writing a special series about all things education in Japan -- from extracurricular activities and school lunches to the emotional challenges students face as they try to succeed in a school system with high expectations.
As I start, I am nervous about the cultural differences that exist between America and the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan is a fascinating nation known for its innovative technologies, wild and artistic fashions and top-notch education.
I am anxious to explore the culture of Japanese schools from all of these angles.
Japan also has one of the highest suicide rates globally. In 2005, it had the third-highest suicide rate among all nations. According to the World Fact Book, Japan's suicide rate of 21.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010. It is not uncommon for metro trains to unexpectedly stop. A voice monotonously announces over the PA system, "Human accident."
This means someone leapt in front of the oncoming train.
During my trip, I will get to know students struggling with the loss of loved ones through suicide. I feel intrigued, yet admittedly unprepared, to glimpse the pressures the youth of Japan face to land competitive careers. My coverage will feature the journeys of individual students trying to make their mark in one of the most populous cities in the world.
My experience in Japan will not be limited to the classroom. I will be heading northeast of the city to Ishinomaki, where I will volunteer with disaster relief efforts in portions of Japan still struggling to rise to their feet in the wake of the tsunami.
Many people from the affected areas of Japan lost their homes. Despite reconstruction efforts, there are still areas greatly affected by the disaster and students whose education carers have been ruthlessly interrupted by Mother Nature. I hope to not only physically help with the restructuring of their lives, but also learn more about their personal goals for the future.
I have been spending the last several weeks preparing for this trip mentally and emotionally. I have been learning bits of conversational Japanese and have been brushing up on cultural etiquette (it is considered an insult to the cook to dip your white rice in soy sauce, and you should try to keep your hands from sliding too far down on your chopsticks).
But there is no way to prepare for my discussions with the natives except to dive in. I am nervous because I have not experienced personal loss as deeply as some of these students have. Still, I realize I have been presented with a rare opportunity.
I am most looking forward to having casual conversations with students over authentic meals and tea, wandering through the curious streets of Tokyo and, most importantly, being an active observer in a culture that differs from my own.
I am not making this journey alone. I'm joined by five college students. Most of my travel companions hope to pursue careers in education overseas. We are also working with Southeastern University graduate Christina Harden, who has been fulfilling her dream by working in a language school.
To keep up with stories, pictures and video of my experience, check the Bradenton.com website over the next two weeks and my education blog, Extra Credit. I am looking forward to sharing my adventure with you.
Follow Erica Earl, education reporter, on Twitter @ericabearl.