2011 IARU GSP
The University of Tokyo
My Study Abroad Experience at the University of Tokyo
To be honest, my initial interest in this program was nothing too great. I was searching for something useful to do with my summer and since I am studying bioengineering at UC Berkeley, I figured I should probably find something related to bioengineering. I applied for several research and internship programs including one related to nanoscience, but most of them required a lot more experience than I had at the time. I was also interested in studying abroad in Australia. So I was searching for study abroad summer programs in Australia, but there weren’t many related to bioengineering. However, I eventually came across the IARU global summer program because Australia National University is a part of the alliance. Unfortunately, I could not find anything related to bioengineering in Australia, but the nanoscience program in Japan caught my attention. I did not think that I would actually end up there, but I thought that I might as well apply. I had no strong desire to visit Japan at the moment because I really did not know much about the country and I had never really traveled abroad before. The only things that came to mind when I thought about Japan were anime and geisha girls, neither of which I was very fond of. Clearly, I had a false initial judgment of Japan, as I would soon find out.
When I was first notified of my status in the IARU GSP program, I was waitlisted. At that point, I did not care very much and I pretty much crossed it off my list of possibilities for my summer. It was not until after the huge March earthquake and tsunami in Sendai that I was notified of my acceptance into the program (probably because most people dropped out for fear of after effects of the earthquake and the higher levels of radiation). After being rejected by several other summer programs, I was very proud of my accomplishment of being accepted to this program; however, I was also very hesitant about following through with it after the huge earthquake. I was worried that such a great disaster like that could happen again, while my parents were worried for my safety with the high levels of radiation that I would be exposed to in the food, air, and water. After much hesitation, I decided to follow through with the program as I convinced myself that the experience that I would get would be much greater than my worry for any slight dangers that I might be exposed to.
As the date of my program approached, my parents wouldn’t stop bugging me about preparing for my trip; but for some reason, I was no longer worried at all. I was given tons of information from the IARU GSP coordinators that I had not yet read because there was so much of it. In fact, I did not start reading them until the day before my departure. I had never traveled to a foreign country alone before and I realized that I was getting myself into completely unknown
territory. I felt very independent, even though I had grown up with parents who literally did everything for me.
By the time that I had arrived in Tokyo, I had read over the papers and maps so many times about how to get to my hotel, but it all still seemed extremely complicated. I avoided the train system completely (except for the one easy-access train line from the airport to Ueno station), as I figured that I would not be able to figure out my way around. I had never dealt with such a complex
train system before and I did not want to spend too much money getting a taxi or an airport limousine. So I decided to walk to my hotel. It was definitely a long walk and I got lost a few times, but it was a great first experience interacting with friendly Japanese locals in the city streets of Tokyo.
I realized that walking around alone and getting lost in a foreign country is probably one of the most valuable experiences of traveling abroad. By observing and interacting with everything around you on your own, you can really learn a lot about a country’s culture, everyday lifestyle, and values. The city is always busy with people walking everywhere or crowding the subway trains that
are running constantly. The people are always very respectful and friendly, even though the language barrier made it a little difficult to communicate with the people at times. Everybody dresses nicely no matter what the occasion is and the women always carry around fancy umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun. All of the products made in Japan are so delicate and intricate and the people seem to enjoy putting so much effort into their work, no matter how tedious it may be. There are temples and shrines everywhere that are always filled with people praying and practicing cultural rituals, even if it is not a special occasion. With all of these characteristics of Japan combined, I found safety and walking around alone at all times of the day. Being on my own in a place completely unknown to me was something that I have always thought would make me very uneasy; but for some reason, I was just in awe by everything around me. It was a feeling that I cannot explain in words. This whole new world was a place that made me feel more at home than I do at my real home. I realized that I had been a lot more worried about traveling abroad than I
needed to be. All of the news and media shown in America and all of my parents’ worries about me getting sick, hurt, or lost had led me to become very judgmental about the world outside the United States. But now, all of these ideas that had filled my head as I prepared for this trip have been completely erased.
Meeting others in my program from various other countries around the world was also a great learning experience for me. We all had many differences and a few similarities, but there was one main thing that we all had in common: we were all in a place completely foreign to us. Walking around with the group, made the trip a lot easier and even more enjoyable because we were all lost and in awe together. Because I have had very minimal interaction with people from other countries, conversing with my classmates was awkward at times because there were things that people had experienced in their home countries that others had never heard of before. It was hard to assume what people knew about and what they didn’t. But after we got to know each other through our endless conversations over the two weeks, conversation became much more familiar and we learned a lot about each other’s cultures and living styles.
The two weeks went by much faster than I had anticipated, but I know that I have made friends and connections for a lifetime, especially with the online networking systems that we have all around the world these days. It will be a plus to travel to other countries around the world and have connections with friends living in those countries that I can meet up with to show me around. There are even a few of my fellow IARU GSP students visiting and studying abroad in the Berkeley area within this coming school year. It will be an honor to show them around the place I call “home.”
Attending class at the University of Tokyo was also a very worthwhile experience for me. The University of Tokyo is one of the most prestigious universities in the world, especially in the bioengineering field. It was an honor to study at the university, attend lectures taught by professors that are making world-renowned discoveries, and be introduced to some of the world’s top-notch laboratories. In addition, being in a small class of only seven students made it a much more casual setting in which we could get to know the professors and other students more on a personal level. At times, a few of the professors were a little difficult to understand and their lectures may have been far above our level in knowledge, but they were always welcoming and encouraging of our questions.
They really cared about our understanding of the material as students and they were all very proud of their own research. I learned a lot about the many different fields of nanoscience and biotechnology and, as a result, I have been able to discover what areas of research I am really interested in. It has always been difficult for me to decide what major and concentration I want to
dedicate my studies to because I love learning about everything. But by learning about the lifechanging research that these professors are working on and physically seeing what they are currently doing in their laboratories, I was able to realize what kind of research I was most interested in. As a result, I have been motivated to get more involved with such research at my
university and hopefully contribute to a life-changing discovery in the future.
By being in this international academic program, I was exposed to a variety of learning perspectives and differences in interests. I have come to realize that to really make a valuable contribution to the world, it is important that one addresses the needs and concerns of countries around the world. People around the world think in unique ways because of the differences in their everyday lives. The only way to really understand these differences and make a worldwide discovery is to study abroad in many of these countries. The global summer program has allowed me to converse academically with international students and professors, who all have allowed my knowledge to expand to a larger extent by listening to them share their own experiences and wisdom during our academic discussions in class. This has given me a strong desire to study all around the world in order to expand and balance my knowledge even further.
In the end, I feel that I have conquered my fears in a way. I am no longer afraid of setting out on my own. I have learned how to survive in a foreign country out of reach of my parents and others whom I am familiar with.
Overall, I have grown as an individual in many ways. This study abroad program has allowed me to gain a more complete sense of independence and a curiosity for the rest of the world, while eliminating much of the judgment and bias from my mindset that I had going into the program. There are so many more places around the world that I have always wanted to visit based on beautiful pictures I have seen, but I have learned that it is not just the aesthetic beauty of a foreign country that is valuable to me. It is the beauty of the feeling you get being there in a world unimaginable and indescribable that matters the most.
The people, the culture, and the everyday traditions of these countries are all unique. And although I cannot speak for other countries, Japan brought a sense of curiosity, excitement, and happiness to every day, while strengthening my knowledge. In my lifetime, I wish to visit as many countries as possible and I hope that every place will add a little bit to my own character and wisdom as Japan has already done for me.
Melissa Milder is the third person from the right (wearing the sunglasses).