Some friendships simply cannot be cut short—even when a pandemic forces thousands of miles of separation.
Such is the case for Aylin Contreras, a junior studying Spanish and computer science at Eastern Washington University. As a volunteer in EWU’s Asia University America Program (AUAP), Contreras was fortunate enough to spend time with several Japanese study-abroad students from Asia University. But, only about a month after they arrived at Eastern, COVID-19 began to spread across the globe and the students were forced to return to their homes in Tokyo, Japan.
Saddened by their early departure, Contreras created a TikTok video highlighting her favorite moments with the group. The emotional tribute got a lot of attention—more than 1.2 million likes at last count.
“I made the video with the intention of having a little montage of the memories I had with them,” Contreras says. “I did not mean for it to receive as much attention as it did. But I am thankful that I was able to share my experience with these kind and amazing people that life put in my path, even if it was through a one-minute video on TikTok.”
In the video, Contreras introduced the Japanese students to many of the American young-adult pastimes you might expect, such as shopping, playing games and getting ice cream together. Contreras even took the group to her family’s home in Walla Walla, Washington, where they practiced Spanish words, learned a traditional Latin dance, and got in on some family jokes.
Because of her Mexican heritage, Contreras says she was able to teach the students a lot about both American and Mexican culture. She says she was educated about her visitors’ culture as well. “I learned about a lot of Japanese games and traditions, and that they are very appreciative about anything you do for them—even if it was a simple ‘good night’ text.”
But, she says, the experience was so much more than that. “I also learned that language is not a barrier when you are willing to make friends for life.”
The video ends with the study abroad students at Spokane International Airport as they prepared to return to Japan. Contreras wrote in her video, “My heart hurts. Until we meet again friends.”
Contreras says she talks to her new friends every day, and that they even watch movies together through video chat. While she hopes that they get the opportunity to return to Eastern, she is also planning to visit them in Tokyo during the summer of 2021.
Kristina Guilfoyle, the director of AUAP at Eastern, also hopes the students are able to return.
“We had 19 students arrive on February 18 and they were supposed to stay until July 15,” she says. “We hope they can come back, but it might impede their track to graduate [at their home university]. They would all love to return, so hopefully AU can make their credits work.”
Guilfoyle says Eastern typically has two cohorts from Asia University each year. However, she says the group scheduled to arrive in September is also up in the air right now due to the pandemic.
AUAP depends on student volunteers who participate in its Classroom Volunteer Program and Campus Friend Program. As Guilfoyle explains, Classroom Volunteers are students that participate as language partners in class. Many students who are interested in teaching or have an interest in cultural exchanges take part. The Campus Friends Program is intended for EWU students who are looking to make international friends.
Contreras says she intends to stay involved in the AUAP Program, and she recommends other students seek out volunteer opportunities as well.
“They have amazing students who would love to be friends with students at EWU,” she says. “I got out of my comfort zone, talked to them, and got an amazing friendship out of it.”