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Aoyama Gakuin University offers a multitude of study abroad programs. And while many of these are tailored for a particular college and/or department, others are open to all students regardless of major or academic year. Study abroad programs also vary in terms of duration and purpose, each with their own focus. In fact, the sheer number of programs on offer can be problematic for students as they sometimes struggle to select ones best suited to their needs and interests.
One program which has garnered an excellent reputation among Christian and non-Christian students is the Aoyama Gakuin University's Australia Christian Homestay program. Since its launch in 2005, this three-week program (held in February) has consistently attracted more applicants than it can accommodate. Each year, approximately twenty-four students, with an accompanying chaperone, have visited Australia to take part in this popular program. In 2016, I was appoint-ed as chaperone and joined a group of twenty-three students during their second week in the "Land Down Under."
In Australia, students attended classes at the Pacific Coast Christian School (PCCS) in Tweed Heads, near the Gold Coast Airport, and stayed with local Christian families.
From 9am to 3 pm, Monday through Friday, they were
taught English and Australian culture in the mornings and taken on excursions in the afternoons by two
compassionate teachers, Susan and Brian Fryer.
Yet, of all of the school activities and excursions, the most meaningful, according to students, was the day we spent with Mrs. Tess Brill at the Hastings Point Community Dune Care Center. I must admit that before our departure for the center, I had little a of what we were actually going to do but understood (as a Californian who grew up on the coast) the importance of maintaining a healthy coastal dune environment. Our special encounter began when we boarded a bus at the PCCS in the midmorning and set off for a "volunteer activity."
Our journey southward along the coast from Tweed Heads took approximately forty-five minutes. Once we arrived, we were greeted by several volunteers who gave us an orientation and history of the center (which looked like a native-plant nursery). I was surprised to learn that much of the East Coast of Australia was leased to mining companies in the early twentieth century. As a result of their destructive sand mining practices, the fragile dune environment, including its native plants and trees, was almost entirely destroyed. This de-struction led to mass beach erosion and a general degradation of coastal eco-systems. Consequently, by the late 1960s, the beaches of Eastern Australia had been severely damaged.
After receiving our orientation, the "youthful" ninety-two-year-old Tess Brill emerged from the forest to
With a small amount of assistance from the students, she pushed her wheeled-walker through the dense foliage and sat down. She began by explaining that her husband, "Vic" Brill, had passed away. Sadly, he died after they had celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Then, suddenly, her face lit up as she explained that she had come to greet us because she had something "important" that she wanted to show our group.
Tess led us down a path for a few minutes until we reached a clearing in the forest. Then, she instructed the students to plant their saplings next to the spot where their classmates had planted theirs two years earlier. We were all surprised by how quickly the two-year-old saplings had grown. The sap-lings that we were given to plant were only two meters high, but the two-year-old saplings were now towering trees, pro-viding much-needed shade and canopy for the other young trees to grow.
The students worked enthusiastically in teams of four to plant their trees in the sandy soil. Next, they carefully watered them. After the groups had finished their task, Tess called them together. "I'd like to show you wherewe have placed the plaque," she said softly. Tess then pointed to a spot onthe forest floor. An engraved plaque mounted on a hardwood post bore the message:
In Loving Memory of Victor Vincent Brill 'Vic' OAM
Who has inspired us with his love of
the environment and the knowledge and
confidence that we can all make a difference!
Our annual dune care day at Hastings PT
with Vic and the team has been our treasure.
Thank you, Vic. Forever in our hearts.
Students and Staff Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan.
For a few moments, no one spoke. We were all deeply touched by the plaque which recognizes the special bond between Tess' late husband "Vic" and the students of Aoyama Gakuin University. Susan Fryer (who organized the plaque on behalf of last year's Aoyama students) then turned to Tess to ask her if she could give some advice to the students. With a deep smile and bright eyes, Tess turned toward the group and (without the slightest hesitation) began to offer her wisdom.
She began by stating that while "her journey" was almost over, the students' journey was just beginning. Tess' message was straightforward yet exceptionally meaningful: "Dedicate yourself to public service. Take responsibility for your actions. Work with others to repair the damage done to the environ-ment. Be thankful since most people have far less than you. Understand that from little things, big things grow."
After we had said our tearful goodbyes and returned to Tweed Heads, I asked the students to write down what they remembered from Tess' message. The following day, they read from their notes and shared their thoughts regarding her "words of wisdom" among themselves. It was clear that they had been deeply touched-- not only by Tess' words, but by the strength of her convictions.
Besides working for the environment, Tess and "Vic" also worked to support aboriginal communities over many years. Tess, for instance, was instrumental in the establishment of the Women's Refuges and Women's Health Clinics in the area. As a result of their outstanding life work, Tess and "Vic" were independently recognized in 2014 by the Australian govern-ment and each presented with The Order of Australia (OAM) at the Government House in Sydney. We (Aoyama Gakuin University Australia Christian Homestay program partic-ipants) have, therefore, been privileged to work alongside them in their efforts to make our world a better place for all.
Several months have passed since our trip to Australia; however, the image of Tess, sitting in the restored coastal forest at Hastings Point (reminding us
that "from little things, big things grow") will remain in our minds and hearts for many years to come.
It is no wonder that the students who took part in
this year's Australia Christian Homestay program all acknowledge that the
chance encounter with Mrs. Tess Brill was the highlight of their three-week
Firstly, I cannot express enough gratitude to Mrs. Susan Fryer who provided essential information for this article. I would also like to thank her husband, Brian Fryer, and the teachers and staff at the Pacific Coast Christian School in Tweed Heads, Australia for their generous support. Finally, my heartfelt thanks to Mrs. Tess Brill and
the other volunteers at the Hastings Point Dune Care facility. Your continuing work at the Dune Care Center serves as a powerful metaphor that "from little things, big things grow."