Year abroad sheds light on stereotypes, cultural contrasts
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Understanding cultural differences is key to developing a global perspective.

Gunnison High School junior Gus Messner — who spent a year in another country, which is about as different from Colorado as one may imagine — has gained that viewpoint. And even has taken it a step further.

“I now understand that once the door opens, why a culture is different. You can’t assume different is good or bad. Different is different,” said Messner. “You can’t explain a group of people in a sentence or two. Each place in the world is complex, with its own sense of completeness, diversity, tradition and beliefs. None of it’s bad, and none of it’s good. It’s just different and amazing.”

Messner has spent the last year in Tokyo, Japan, as a part of the American Field Service (AFS) student exchange program. The international nonprofit seeks to foster intercultural learning experiences through a global volunteer partnership. It offers programs in more than 50 countries with participating students coming from more than 80 countries.

Messner first learned about the program as he was seeking to broaden his worldview and deepen his understanding of Japanese culture. He’s been fascinated with the country since a very young age.

There was one challenge, however. The Tokyo program was one of the most expensive areas for AFS, topping $15,000. Messner’s parents encouraged him to seek other funding while helping with some of the expense.

Messner applied for a full AFS scholarship and was one of three finalists. While he did not receive the full ride, he was recommended for partial funding of more than $10,000. His parents made up the rest.

Messner was almost immediately immersed educationally and culturally. He lived with a retired couple, and between walking and bus rides, his commute to school took about an hour. Days consisted of going to school at 7 a.m. and being instructed entirely in Japanese. Then after school, he participated in two-hour-long mandatory clubs. Messner chose literature and the English Speaking Society.

“I actually questioned the fact he wanted to go for a year, especially in high school,” said his father, John. “After talking to him, I made sure he understood what he was in for, and the periods of homesickness. I think he dealt with it exceptionally well.”

What he learned from his fellow students was the competitiveness of the educational system in Japan. Students spend hours studying each day. In fact, Messner said, more emphasis is placed on study than instruction. It is not uncommon for a student in the final year of high school to study more than 10 hours per day. Messner said it’s due to the difficulty of college entrance exams in that country.

But he also gave back to his fellow students, helping them become more adept with his native language. Messner  recalled one incident in which a student wanted to refer to bug repellant and ended up saying “mosquito bye-bye spray.”

But Messner sought more than just hours of instruction. He traveled throughout Tokyo’s 14 urban hubs, learning the nuances of each district. Some are fashion-oriented, while others are geared toward providing sanctuary in a busy city.

Yet, another difference from Gunnison was the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s biggest cities.

“It’s an interesting clash of history and modernization,” Messner said. “One minute you’re in the fashion center and right next to it you walk the main street and you enter a forest in the middle of the city and inside it is the Meiji Shrine. When you’re standing in it, it feels like the city disappears.”

Messner returned to the United States earlier this month, and has already experienced culture shock — a phenomenon he learned is fairly normal among the AFS friends he made. He’s playing a bit of catch up in some subject areas, but plans to take online courses this coming summer. He’s re-adjusting to the social structure of an American high school as well.

He’s learned that in the United States, stereotypes of other countries are prevalent. Although he’s traveled internationally, he said he didn’t quite understand the contrasts — until now.

“I think that’s what he’s gained the most out of the experience,” said his mother, Heather. “The difference in culture doesn’t necessarily mean one is better than the other. There are just different ways of daily life.”

“In the end, my ability to learn that and have it brought to light is how I grew,” Messner said.

Messner, who is nearly fluent in speaking Japanese, is now interested in taking his experience and integrating it into a future career choice. But he’s not quite sure what that looks like right now.

“That’s a whole different conversation and situation,” said Messner. “No matter what happens with college, Japanese is a guaranteed minor.”


(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at