In early March, just days before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, a group of 15 Japanese students arrived at KU from Kansai University. The International Short Programs team had to rethink their nine-month study abroad program. Planned internships transitioned into a series of volunteer experiences, small outings were made in lieu of the customary trip to Chicago and in-person classes were moved online. Together, the Japanese students donated more than 400 hours to local service organizations.
“They have made the most of everything they have been able to do instead of focusing on what they couldn’t do,” said Mindy Van House, education program coordinator with International Short Programs. “We were blessed to have such an exceptionally resilient group of young people this year and we are so proud of the grace and maturity with which they have approached this unusual study abroad experience and impressed by their growth.”
As members of the group prepare to return to Japan, two students reflect on their time at KU in the midst of a global pandemic. Below are their thoughts about a study abroad experience unlike any other:
We are students from Japan for a nine-month study abroad program. We are majoring in foreign languages in Japan and we mainly study linguistics at the University of Kansas. In order to learn language and culture in the U.S., we came to Lawrence in March and we are going to go back to Japan in December. When we came here in March, the situation of COVID-19 in Japan was worse than that of the U.S. So, we had to quarantine in the U.S. for two weeks. Time goes by, the situation of COVID-19 in the U.S. got worse and worse, and the number of people who wear masks increased day by day. Around the time of our end of quarantine, the University of Kansas decided not to have in-person classes, and all of our classes were changed to online ones, which made us disappointed. Also, we had no choice but to live with students from the same university in Japan because most students in university went back to their own homes. The people we could interact with were only Japanese, which was very different from what we had expected. In April, we began to take online classes. We didn’t have a chance to meet classmates in person, so it was difficult for us to make friends. Also, it was hard for us to motivate ourselves because we didn’t get to study with our friends. However, in daily life, there were many difficulties. We hesitated to speak to people around us because of COVID-19, which made us have fewer opportunities to practice speaking English. Also, club activities in university had not been activated until the fall semester. We were sad to miss the chance to experience them. And the COVID-19 situation made us stay home and that made us stressed out.
However, there were many positive aspects. We acquired the skill of time management while staying home, so we spent time efficiently. For example, one student could spend plenty of her time studying French, which helped her later make friends who also speak French. Another student could spend much time watching movies which improved her English skills. In addition, online classes enabled us to study at our own pace and whenever we wanted. Besides, we had enough time to work on our assignments. The other positive aspect was that we could participate in volunteering activities. Actually, we were supposed to work on an internship, but we couldn’t do that because of COVID-19. However, our program coordinators arranged many volunteering activities for us and each of us spent 32 hours in total on them. For example, we joined the activities at Just Food and Habitat for Humanity. Through the volunteering activities, we could experience a lot of things. We learned how the U.S. welfare system works and it was interesting to know because we think Japan doesn’t have enough systems like that. We got to talk with locals and we were touched by the warmth of them. Also, some student staff held a conversation group through Zoom every day, so we could practice English. We could learn deeply about different cultures by talking with the student staff from different cultural backgrounds. We talked about a lot of things, which made us closer. We were so glad because they were our first friends in the U.S. We are really grateful for them to hold it for a year. Also, we had fewer opportunities to participate in events and we couldn’t travel around the U.S., but we got to interact with locals and to know about Lawrence and Kansas profoundly by going to many places.
We had discovered some cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan. First, we thought everyone in the U.S. was friendly. For example, the store clerks in the U.S. speak to customers more often than the Japanese do. In addition, even passersby give compliments like “I like your outfits”. We found it a great culture. Second, we noticed that the students in the U.S. raise their hands more often to tell their opinion than Japanese students do. In Japan, students hesitate to speak up in class because they care about what others will think of them. We thought that what students in the U.S. do was ideal for university students. Third, we found out that many more people in the U.S. are interested in politics than Japanese people are. Especially youth in Japan don’t try to discuss that. In fact, they don’t really know about the system of Japanese politics. American students have their own strong opinion and they told us about that. We realized that we should learn about politics in Japan more.
Through the nine months that we spent in the U.S., we had special experiences that we cannot do in a normal situation. During the hard time of COVID-19, we could overcome a lot of difficulties thanks to a lot of supporters. Also, we realized the kindness of people around us such as our family. Lastly, we would like to thank our program coordinators, who had worked hard for us to make our study abroad program in the U.S. fruitful. It was reassuring that they had always been with us. Thank you very much.
Nao Morimoto and Hanae Matsuda
Photo caption: Kansai students volunteering this summer at a Habitat for Humanity home build project.