Ex-educator just makes age cut for dream JICA stint to Gabon

NAGANO, Japan (The Japan News/ANN) - A former junior high school principal will jet off to Gabon on Tuesday as a senior volunteer for the Japan International Cooperation Agency to pass on his expertise to teachers in the central African nation.

A former junior high school principal will jet off to Gabon on Tuesday as a senior volunteer for the Japan International Cooperation Agency to pass on his expertise to teachers in the central African nation.

 Now aged 70, Junji Sugita applied to take part in the program when he was 69 — the cut-off age for senior volunteers. Applying just in the nick of time, he was accepted and is now poised to continue his dedication to education.

 Sugita, who is from Ina, Nagano Prefecture, had seen students from the junior high school where he worked involved in exchanges with JICA trainees. This experience inspired Sugita to contribute to international cooperation in a developing nation during his “second life” after retirement.

 In addition to JICA’s Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers program, the agency also dispatches senior volunteers who have highly specialized knowledge to help in sectors including education and medical care. JICA has training centers in Komagane, Nagano Prefecture, and Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, where volunteers receive 70 days of training on the language and culture of the host nation before being dispatched overseas.

 Sugita was a teacher for 36 years at elementary and junior high schools in Nagano Prefecture. Komagane municipal Akaho Junior High School, where Sugita was principal when he retired 10 years ago, was near the JICA training school in Komagane. Sugita often invited soon-to-depart trainees to visit the school and describe to students what they would do after reaching their assigned countries, and Sugita became a member of a group that supported the volunteers’ overseas activities.

 After retiring, Sugita had to care for his elderly mother, so going overseas was not a realistic option. His mother died at age 96 in 2016, and after holding a memorial service to mark the anniversary of her death in July 2018, Sugita saw JICA were recruiting senior volunteers to help with elementary school education — a field in which he could use the skills honed during his career. 

 The dream he had once given up suddenly roared back to life. 

 At 69, Sugita “had only one chance” and decided to go for it. After passing an application screening and an interview, Sugita was selected as a senior volunteer in February.

 French is the official language of Gabon, a tropical country located on the equator. During Sugita’s training that started in September, he practiced French day in and day out and passed the language test. 

 “I’m not young, so remembering all the words was hard,” Sugita recalled. “The words wouldn’t stay in my head, and I really struggled.”

 During his two-year stay in the capital of Libreville, Sugita will instruct teachers on how to teach arithmetic to students in the lower grades of elementary school. He is determined to make a difference.

 “Every child has the ability to grow and develop. I want to help them do that,” Sugita said.

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