By Hiroko Sato
GROTON — Gavin Gamache said he used to think the term Pacific Islander was just “another thing to check off on college applications.”
Watching a YouTube video clip showing a high school in Saipan from which his teacher, Jay Villagómez, graduated changed all that for the Groton-Dunstable High School senior.
“It reminded me of California. It didn’t seem that different (from the U.S.),” Gamache said of Saipan.
Hearing about life there from Villagómez made the tropical island feel even closer to him. Now that he and his classmates have learned about Saipan’s ties to New England’s whaling history and American soldiers’ fights against Japanese there during World War II, as well, they are hoping to turn their sense of connection with the island into a real bond through a sister city agreement.
Come April, a group of Groton-Dunstable high school students plan to go before Groton Town Meeting to seek authorization to apply for a sister city agreement between Groton and Saipan. If approved, this would result in Groton’s first Sister City relationship.
The Pacific island, located 3,750 miles west of Hawaii, is Villagómez’s hometown. Though Saipan is part of the U.S. Commonwealth and shares historical connections with New England, Villagómez has noticed that many people here aren’t familiar with the island. When Selectmen Chairman Jack Petropoulos visited Villagómez’s government class this past fall and challenged students to do something to contribute to local government, the teacher thought of the sister project, which would give students, as well as residents, opportunities to learn about the community on the other side of the globe.
Surrounded by the blue oceans, Saipan has landscapes resembling that of Hawaii somewhat and Americanized, yet laid-back, lifestyles with cultural influences from Germany, Spain and Japan, according to Villagómez. Gavin, a School Choice student from Tyngsboro, said he knew so little about the island before the class that he first thought Saipan was a misspelling of Japan. He then saw Google photos of the island and the YouTube video.
“I immediately wanted to go there,” said Gavin, who dreams of relaxing in a hammock on the Saipan beach.
Gavin’s dream might just come true. The students recently presented the initiative to gain support from Petropoulos and Town Manager Mark Haddad. Villagómez is in touch with people on the island, including the Rotary Club there, to help make the project a reality. Students are already tossing around ideas for activities they could do with people of Saipan, including a student exchange program and helping businesses in both communities, such as apple orchards in Groton and mango and pineapple producers in Saipan, connect for potential trade.
Students also learned the WWII history involving the Mariana Islands. The class might be interested in traveling there for hands-on learning through “island hopping,” Gavin said.
“History and geography come together and create total understanding,” Gavin said.
Gavin said he and his classmates felt excited about the sister city initiative when Villagómez reminded them that the agreement would become their legacy when they graduate — something that most high school students do not even attempt making.
“His energy comes to me and other students, as well,” Gavin said of Villagómez, calling him “the best teacher we ever had.”