Columbia University’s School of Social Work

by Akari Takahashi

It has almost been 2 months since I commenced my studies at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. My worldview is being transformed through my studies and experiences here, and I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Hsun Kwei & Aiko Takizawa Chou and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. for allowing me to come here and undergo this transformation.

My most important takeaway from this program so far is the power that we have in unity. While mainstream frameworks like identity politics and intersectionality may be helpful in coming together with those who we share particular experiences with, their overemphasis on difference tends to divide rather than unite us. The mixed feelings of grief and hope are experiences shared by the majority, and this is what we should focus on when organizing collective action for change.

Throughout my class discussions and conversations with my friends here, I am realizing the importance of putting theories into practice, and that theories around equality are only as valuable as the solutions that arise out of them. Hence, I have joined study groups that examine theories we learn in classes through this critical lens, and we have been working with professors to expand the curriculum. As many of the classes in my program were developed by students in the past, the professors have been supportive and encouraging of this.

In my internship at a public school in Harlem, I am in charge of facilitating the social justice lunch groups with middle and high schoolers and a counseling group with 6th graders. By focusing the conversation on unity, I have facilitated students to collectively identify common interests of changes they want to make in the school and the community, and the groups are now focused on planning ways to cooperate to achieve these goals. Through this, my hope is that students can experience and become aware of their agency in shaping the world around them. In the counseling group, I work with students who are not well integrated into the social life of the school and help them feel a sense of belonging in the group. In the first few sessions, we have been playing games and getting to know each other, and I utilize the motivational interviewing skills I learned in my class to build rapport in the group.

In addition to facilitating groups, I also support students going through emotional and interpersonal crises in one-on-one sessions. It has been so fulfilling to see students become aware of their strengths and ability to change through the counseling skills I am learning in my classes, and see them gain confidence to apply to universities and jobs. I hope to build up more skills and experiences that would allow me to be an impactful social worker in Japan in the future.