“As a Goodwill Ambassador, I not only represent the festival, but I am also able to introduce Japanese cultural activities which help to strengthen the friendship between Japan and the United States.”
This spring, four Mason students found that seeing the cherry blossoms decorate the Potomac River in the nation's capital was only half of the fun. The students wanted to play a bigger role in the beautiful annual capital city spectacle.
Grace Kim (junior, global affairs), Mica Dumas (junior, global affairs), Nazmeene Khan (senior, economics) and Sarah Paolozzi (sophomore, Chinese) – all undergraduate students in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Mason – joined students from other universities in serving as the 2012 Goodwill Ambassadors of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
In their role as ambassadors, the students served as official representatives of the festival, attending events and guiding visitors who had questions and feedback. The spots are prestigious but require tireless dedication and endless supplies of both energy and enthusiasm.
According to Sufumi So, faculty member in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and an expert in Japanese language and culture, the four Mason students were interviewed and selected because they are "talented, energetic individuals who have a true passion for international relations, community involvement, and the Festival," as stated on the National Cherry Blossom Goodwill Ambassador Program website. “I completely agree with the Goodwill Ambassador selection committee that they do have these qualities," So said.
The festival ran from March 20-April 27, 2012, and the student ambassadors benefited from being part of the program, in more ways than one. Kim, Dumas and Paolozzi all minor in Japanese studies at Mason.
Kim, who spent six years in Japan as a child, felt that her involvement as an ambassador helped her reconnect to her Japanese heritage.
“The Japan that I remember from childhood stays vivid in my mind, but ten years have passed since then and I am in awe of how long I have been apart from Japan,” Kim said. “I was most interested in learning about Japanese social tendencies and historical context. Japan is an evolving country which continuously produces new ideas and trends, and I was most interested in finding out about its cultural evolution.”
Dumas, who spent seven years in Germany and 12 years near Tokyo, learned about the program from So, who she respectfully refers to as “sensei.” As a true global citizen who is interested in returning to Japan professionally after graduation, Dumas found that the festival both fascinated her and helped her learn more about the Japanese community fabric.
“As an American, I lived in Japan for 12 years, so the National Cherry Blossom Festival truly reflects my personal experiences,” she said. “As a Goodwill Ambassador, I not only represent the festival, but I am also able to introduce Japanese cultural activities which help to strengthen the friendship between Japan and the United States.”
Paolozzi’s interest in Japan does not stem from any time spent in the country. She felt being an ambassador would allow her to learn more about all aspects of Japanese culture, which she both respects and appreciates.
“I had always enjoyed the cherry blossoms and I have a great respect for what they are and how they came to the United States,” she said. “Japanese culture is very unique, and I enjoy learning its customs, practices, and most of all, language. It’s something that I am very fond of, but that definitely keeps me on my toes.”
Khan viewed the appointment as a symbol of the relationship between the United States and Japan.
"When I think of the Japanese cherry blossoms, I think of friendship, beauty and respect," Khan said. "I think of the everlasting friendship between America and Japan. I think of the respect given and received by both countries. Finally, I think of the beauty of how it has been expressed."
While these wonderful experiences are coming to a close for Mason’s 2012 ambassadors, a new opportunity will soon open for those interested in participating during the 2013 Cherry Blossom Festival. The Goodwill Ambassador positions, as previously mentioned, are very competitive, and the application will open in the summer of 2012. According to this year's participants, the prestigious opportunity is worth the competitive application process.
"To be part of this festival and help promote the ethics, beliefs and morals of the National Cherry Blossom Festival has been a great honor that I will take with me my for the rest of my life," Khan said.
This year won’t be Mason’s last ride in the nation’s greatest springtime celebration.
All photos by Anam Khatib