by Rin Ichino
When I found the “Summer Peace Institute” course on the list of Global Summer Program, I decided to apply for it without much thought. To be honest, all I wanted to do was to take part in any one of GSP courses, and it didn’t matter for me which one I would take. With the third year in the University of Tokyo just around the corner, I was afraid of my lacking of something to be learned in these two years, such as analytical skills and critical thinking. One-way lectures in a large class of my major, law and politics, seemed not effective to improve such skills, and it seemed studying abroad would change the situation and my attitude to learn.
Summer Peace Institute, described as a course to “deepen your understanding of the changing landscape of contemporary international relations and sharpen your critical thinking and communication skills,” seemed to be a good match with my purpose of studying abroad. In addition, its focus on peacebuilding and human security attracted me as I have been interested in current issues in Japan related to human rights. That was almost everything in my mind when I decided to take it, and I had no idea how it works for me at that point. Now, with my certificate of completion, I can tell a few more about in what particular points this program could be special for me.
Anyone who looks through the course website can expect “a diverse international group of students” will make classroom discussion stimulating, which caught my eyes too in the first place. The reality was more than that. Putting myself in the seminar room, I found myself surrounded by great diversity, with not limited to GSP students, but with spirited students from UC Berkeley who mostly major in Peace and Conflicts, and graduates of University for Peace (UPEACE). Each student from USA had different background from all over the world, and most UPEACE graduates were from Africa and South America with good reason to engage in their field. It was not simply about diversity. Every student contributed to lively discussion and research in some ways reflected their personal experience and stories. Some had unique viewpoints and knowledge on human security issues, sometimes even taking an action by themselves.
Though not so strongly marked in the course description, the fact that the course offered homestays with local families made a difference. I enjoyed daily exchanges of ideas with host family and housemates, as well as academic discussion in class. We spent a weekend together with host family on their traditional farm in countryside, asking their way of life and learning their view on marriage, family and so on. Living together is not only about pleasant things. Sometimes petty troubles and quarrels did happen. Seeing how people with different nationality dealt with them, and of course trying to “make peace” by myself, I realized interesting differences in perception and coping strategy among us, and went through difficulty of peacebuilding in daily life. Regrettably I had not done much research on Costa Rican society and culture in advance, but that’s how I learned it in practice.
The most interesting experience I had never imagined beforehand was working together on group projects. Six weeks of the course were divided into two sections, first three weeks for lectures/seminars on “Human Security in the 21st Century” and the latter half for field study on “Peacebuilding Practice.” At the end of both sections we undertook research assignments and in-class presentations in a group of 3-8 people.
As for the first half, I was surprised to know how differently group work was organized from what I had been familiar with in Japan. In my group, we first briefly draw the rough sketch of presentation together and divide it into parts of each member, then start working individually. Though you would ask someone to make sure you’re going on right way, it is not until the last moment before in-class presentation that you get the whole completed picture. Having not done one’s part should be seen as irresponsible, but uncalled interference in other part would be annoying as well. First I felt confused to find myself only one who concerned about consistency and harmony as a group, but got impressed to see our presentation perfectly worked out in the end. It seemed each one knew well where to find useful information and what points to show in which context. In some other groups such a way of working did cause problems, but grew everyone mentally up to some degrees. I would not say that is the best and only way of working as a group, but it did made me do away with my fixed idea and reflect my role in a group.
The second half has a different story. I worked in the rainforest as a volunteer in such a small group of three that I had an opportunity to observe how other students actually work on their parts. This time, we were supposed to complete a report paper along with volunteer work, but until the last moment all of us were obsessed by life in the rainforest and behind of our own project. I did worried about not having enough time and sources, but once we started, I found others had collected useful facts through daily observation and dialogue with people, not only through the internet and official pamphlets. They seemed to simply enjoy chatting and working in the rainforest, but at the same time they had interpreted and analyzed critically what we saw and heard. I doubt I could achieve the same even in Japanese if I were working by myself.
In some sense, I had a hard time falling behind of others in these 6 weeks. It is partly because of my language problem and partly because of shortage of academic skills. And yet I believe such a pain carved insightful experience to lift my spirits. Six weeks is not enough to improve radically my English and way of studying, but does serve well to urge me to confront the reality and make serious efforts to catch up with others.
Now back in Japan, I am waiting for the coming studying abroad program, for one academic year in USA from this September. Its application period was the same with IARU, and so was the reason and motive of my application. After these 6 weeks they still remain unchanged radically, but when I simply say the necessity of “critical thinking and analytical skills,” it is not merely something sounds nice, but something to bring ideas into my heads about what I’m missing and what I need to make difference, with details and actual feelings. Now I am ready to jump into different climate of learning in USA, and take every single step to change the situation of mine by myself.