She could have marched across the stage, the echoes of Pomp and Circumstance ringing in her ears. Instead of participating in graduation ceremonies, Shelli Sanders, 17, a 2006 Westside High School graduate, was headed to Japan.
She was there May 31 to June 21 as part of an exchange visit arranged by Georgia Southern University, where she'll study international affairs this fall. On the campus at Georgia Southern's sister university, Nagoya University, Shelli was able to sit in on classes and achieve her goal of traveling to Japan by the time she turned 18.
"Going to Japan was a lifelong dream of mine," Shelli said. "Being there, I saw this culture that had, all my life, influenced me."
Shelli said she fell in love with the Japanese culture in second grade when she met a Japanese artist. Her interest grew after she moved from Texas to Augusta and received instruction in Manga, a Japanese style of drawing.
"It led her to explore other things in the culture and other cultures," said her mother, Vivian Sanders, who accompanied Shelli on the trip, which included travel through 47 districts in Japan.
Shelli has become a proponent of being open-minded and open-armed to those from all parts of the world.
"Our world is united," she said. "Whether you recognize it, we all share similar hopes, beliefs and dreams. To be American is to be diverse. That's why I want to let exchange students know: that we are diverse and we are kind."
Shelli lives ambassadorship every day. She has adopted 11 "international siblings" and she chose to reside in the international student housing at Georgia Southern instead of its freshman dorms. She's meeting foreign exchange students today at her university to serve as an ambassador of sorts. She plans to bring one group to Augusta in September for First Friday.
Shelli isn't surprised that students from different cultures have connected.
"Because this generation, my generation, is the computer generation, we have all this technology. Our world is globally shrinking, and we can adopt little siblings and teach them what we have learned and they can be more globally aware and culturally tolerant, so maybe we can cut down on all these different wars," she said.
Shelli wants to return to Japan in January, and live there temporarily after graduation.
To do so would mean taking a life lesson and applying it.
"No limitations, no boundaries," that's what her mom taught her, Shelli said.
Though the mantra was meant to be words of encouragement to not settle for just anything, it has taken on a different context for the girl who found herself in awe of the Japanese people.
"I think it was more than I expected it to be," Shelli confessed. "I remember walking across the airport, thinking 'I'm here.' Whoever would have thought I'd go to Japan? But they really took me in."
Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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