After spending three weeks in Japan, two Prince George’s County students have returned home with a new sense of global citizenship and desire to strengthen their communities by organizing river cleanups, teaching “green” skills and planting trees.

Naomi Rao, 17, of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and Lucy Aistis, 17, of Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg — along with 28 other students from around the country — participated in the American Youth Leadership Program with Japan dubbed JAWS — the Japan-America Watershed Stewardship project. They were the only two students who went from Prince George’s. The pilot program from the State Department began July 18 and is designed to expose students to other cultures and use what they’ve learned to improve the environment in their own communities. Rao, of Greenbelt, said that she has taken two years of Japanese at Eleanor Roosevelt, which assisted her with the language barrier, but that most students on the trip did not know Japanese.

“It was awesome. I was so excited,” Rao said. “It was an opportunity that seemed almost surreal, with them paying for me to go halfway around the world to experience all kinds of things.”

The fully funded trip through the State Department is a yearlong commitment from selected students that starts with online discussions to prepare them for learning overseas and familiarize them with the environmental and cultural subjects they’ll be experiencing. To apply, students had to submit biographies, résumés and letters of recommendation and go through an interview process.

Rao and Aistis, of Hyattsville, will be organizing a community-wide watershed cleanup with the Anacostia Watershed Society along the Anacostia River in Bladensburg. While in Japan, they toured environmental structures such as water treatment plants, pond-purifying facilities and nature restoration centers, which gave them ideas on environmental projects.

“The trip showed me how I could form a project to do something about the problems I see,” Aistis said. “It was definitely a great experience. It was something I would’ve never done before.”

Aistis is also preparing to teach kindergarten students the art of Japanese calligraphy, which she learned while on the trip. She said the program was looking for students to organize cultural projects, in addition to environmental.

Seton Principal Sharon Pasterick said that the program was an exciting opportunity for students at the private school to participate in and that she’s proud of Aistis’s accomplishment.

“It was really something exciting for a junior in high school to do,” Pasterick said. “It’s a truly amazing accomplishment, but I’m certainly proud of someone who applies for something nationwide and is accepted.”

Pasterick said Seton is dedicated to the environment, and Aistis’s efforts will enhance students’ concern for the planet when the cleanup day takes place in the spring. A date for the cleanup has not been set.

“Lucy said she attended a lot of lectures, and one that I found very interesting discussed how when it was snowing, they had a way of storing [the snow] so they can use it when it’s hot outside,” Pasterick said.

Rao said they learned that the Japanese way of handling environmental issues is about making personal sacrifices, so for the watershed cleanup, time and effort are the sacrifice, she said.

Anthony Naglieri, program coordinator for Cultural Vistas, the foreign exchange organization the State Department selected to facilitate the trips, said there were 77 applicants for the pilot Japan program. He said Rao and Aistis showed strong interest in other cultures and expressed an interest to use what they learn for meaningful projects.

The focus of the trip was on environmental conservation. The State Department funded eight trips with different educational focuses, such as the Bangladesh program on climate change and the Cambodia trip on media and cultural literacy. Aistis and Rao’s trip started in Tokyo, then continued in suburban, country and coastal areas to get a sense of the culture and local environmental practices.

Rao said there was some sightseeing, but many days were filled with touring embassies or colleges and speaking with Japanese professors or ambassadors. Naglieri said several translators accompanied the students to help them communicate with the people they met.

Naglieri said the programs are designed to teach high school students how to think globally in terms of partnerships and collaboration.

“One of the goals from the State Department is to try and create a kind of global citizen and prepare youth to make a difference in their communities,” he said. “It’s also to see new perspectives and be open to new ideas to try to get students to pursue further opportunities abroad.”

The project will culminate in the spring, when both students plan to implement their projects.