JCMU is proud to announce that applications for the 2017 Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange are now open! Every year since 1990, the program has sent Michigan high school students to live abroad and experience Japanese culture for two weeks during the summer. Our staff had the chance to talk to Cassandra Walker, an alum of the 2010 program and a current Michigan State University student, about her experiences in Japan.
What was your motivation for participating in the program?
I have been a fan of anime since I was young, before I even knew what anime what. Along the way I began to notice that these cartoons depicted a society and culture that was different from my own, and that intrigued me. In high school I was lucky enough to see a glimpse into Japanese culture while taking Japanese classes, which made me want to learn more about Japan firsthand. I visited Japan before on another school program which focused more on touring the big cities. I told myself that the next time I went to Japan, I wanted to experience everyday Japanese life.
What were some of the activities you did and places you visited in Japan?
Most of my time in Japan was spent at school, helping prepare for the culture festival. The other exchange participants at our school and I had our own presentation for the festival, all about Michigan and America. The festival itself was so much fun! We got to see the finished product of everyone’s hard work: plays, haunted houses, and cafes to name a few. When not at school, I went to some local places with my host family. My favorite trip was to Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, climbing a mountain lined with thousands of red torii gates and seeing the city from the top.
What was the experience of living with a host family like?
I was nervous about living with a host family at first – what if I didn’t get along with my new family? What if my host sister didn’t like me? – but once I arrived I was welcomed with open arms. My host family did their best to make me feel at home and to show me what life was like in Japan. I was lucky that my host sister had a high level of English skills, so she was able to explain things to me. The few times that we had to look up a word or phrase, it was a fun experience for the whole family. I fondly remember talking at the dinner table, looking up the words for Japanese dishes and laughing at the strange English translations.
Do you still keep in touch with your host family and friends you made in Japan?
I have kept in touch with my host sister Rika since I returned from Japan, we would email back and forth in high school and afterwards. I always make sure to see Rika when I’m in Japan, having gone back two times now. Last year I meet up with Rika and her mother in Kyoto and we had a great time reminiscing! Right now Rika is studying abroad in Philadelphia, and I’m so proud of her!
What were some of the differences/similarities of a Japanese high school compared to an American one?
One of the first differences I noticed was that students took their shoes off before entering the building. Our shoes went into little cubbies at the entrance, and we wore indoor shoes in the building. The second difference was the classroom set up; students stayed in their home rooms while the teachers came and went for class. There was no cafeteria in the school, so lunch was also in the classroom. However, school life seemed the same as in America, with classes followed by club activities. Me and my host sister would go to classes for the day, then join the badminton club for practice.
What do you feel was the biggest impact Japan had on you?
Going on the exchange program opened my eyes to how wide and vast the world was. I got to see up close a culture and society that was both different and similar to my own. I started learning more about Japanese culture, especially the history and religion. I continued learning about these topics in college, where I expanded my knowledge on not only Japan, but other cultures as well. I plan to continue learning more about foreign cultures, knowing now how important it is to be able see the world from different perspectives.
What were you doing before the program, and what are you doing now?
Before the program I was a junior at Eaton Rapids High School and a member of my school’s anime club. I had no idea what I wanted to do in my future, and college was one of the last things on my mind. Now, I am a proud student at Michigan State University majoring in Interdisciplinary Humanities with a focus on East Asian Studies. I also work for JCMU as one of their Peer Advisers. I even studied abroad in Japan once more as a participant on JCMU’s 2016 Summer Intensive Language program, and am looking to go back one more time this summer on JCMU’s 2017 Teaching English in Japan program!
What are your future academic and career goals?
I plan on furthering my understanding of Japan and its language this summer on the Intensive Language program. Following that I’ll be finishing my last year at MSU! After I graduate I hope to teach English in Japan for at least a year. I knew this was the career I wanted to pursue after I participated in an education internship last summer, where I helped teach elementary school students English in Japan. If I return to the States, I hope to continue helping and teaching students, either as an ESL teacher or as a study abroad advisor.
We hope that Cassandra’s experiences have encouraged you to consider studying abroad yourself! For more information about the exchange program, check out the Michigan-Shiga High School Exchange page. Make sure to apply before the March 10th deadline!