Alumna Crystal Bowhall is still feeling the aftershocks of the earthquake that devastated northeastern Japan in March. A teacher in Nagano Prefecture, she reconnected with her alma mater to bring hope to her fifth and sixth graders.
Since graduating from Penn State Brandywine in 2007, Bowhall has kept in touch with Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin, who recommended her for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), for which she now works as an assistant language teacher. After confirming that Bowhall was safe, Guertin wanted to help.
Together they devised a dinosaur letter-writing project. Students in Guertin's Dinosaur Extinctions and Other Controversies class wrote letters about dinosaurs to Bowhall's students to help distract them, teach them and let them know people care.
Each Brandywine student was assigned a photo of a dinosaur and was asked to describe it in the letter. "They're still feeling the aftershocks," Guertin told her class. "This is to help get them to smile and take their minds off the tragedy."
Bowhall thinks the project is also a good way to help the students with their English. "I have spent nine months with the kids so their English level has definitely improved since they've started [learning] and I thought it would be a good idea to interact with people from the States," Bowhall said. "They know about dinosaurs in Japan so that's something they have in common" with the students at Penn State Brandywine.
Each of Guertin's students was given the name of a student at either Iiyama or Akitsu Elementary School where Bowhall teaches. The excited Brandywine students added color to their letters, asked questions about their lives in Japan and wrote about what it's like in Pennsylvania.
"I think this project is important because with everything that is going on over there right now, it will take their minds off of something so serious and be able to focus on something both fun and interesting," said junior Mike McDade.
Senior Joe Ennis agreed, saying he hopes his letter will "educate and make a child's day."
Bowhall's goal is to bring back some normalcy to the children's lives. "I think the kids want to do life as normal and they're all fighting for that," she said. "The kids wrote messages to kids in the schools in Sakaemura" (a small town close by devastated by a 6.0 aftershock just hours after the initial quake). The message was to cheer up. "They're always thinking about what they can do for the people around them."
Though Bowhall lives nearly 200 miles from the epicenter of the quake, she could feel the earth rattle on that Friday afternoon while at work at Izumidai Elementary School.
"I started feeling dizzy but thought 'it's been a long week,'" she remembered. "Then I looked around and things were shaking." This wasn't her first earthquake, but it was definitely the longest.
"Should I get under my desk?" she remembered thinking. "For a moment I didn't know what to do. It was quiet. It was just really scary." After it was over, Bowhall turned on the TV. "You could see the newscasters really frantic and there was a tsunami warning. It was complete panic on the television."
Luckily, Bowhall lives "nowhere near water. But I saw the live images on the news of the water hitting land [from the tsunami]. I was watching people running away and saying 'no don't go that way!'"
With cell phone reception down, Bowhall was unable to contact her mom who lives in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, and the rest of her family, though she later confirmed they were safe.
That first aftershock came at 4 a.m. "For a week or two you would just feel shaking," she remembered. They started to guess the magnitudes. "Oh that was probably like a 2.0, and that was probably like a 4.0," she recalled saying. "Some shake very violently and some are like swaying. [We started] hearing stuff about radiation and you think, 'OK, what do I do?' Then people start throwing around the word 'evacuation,' and again it's 'OK, now what do I do?" For now, she's staying put, taking comfort in the coming together of the Japanese people.
"The people of Japan, in everything they do, they think about what can we do, how can we contribute, how can we change our lives to make someone else's better?" she said. "Japan, the land of the rising sun. You really see these people working together. From a young age, they're taught 'you can't do things alone, you have to work together.' This continues on."