30 Years, 30 Stories: How JCMU Changed My Life

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2018 marks JCMU’s 30th anniversary since our founding in 1988. To celebrate, we will be posting 30 JCMU stories of 30 different JCMU alumni from 1989 to 2018 every Thursday from mid-February through September!

How did study abroad transform you? For our eighth installment in the “30 Years, 30 Stories” series, read the story of JCMU fall 2015 alum Nick Chang, and discover how his time in Hikone led him on a journey of self-discovery that would eventually take him to a prestigious translation graduate program in California.


Introduction

When I think about my time at JCMU, I’m never quite sure where to start. It’s extremely difficult to succinctly express everything that happened in the span of one full semester. However, for me, the way JCMU has impacted my life and my current path has always been an interesting topic of introspection.

JCMU was a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I was abroad without school friends, the first time I took lessons at a Japanese university, and the first time I spent more than a month out of the country. More importantly, it was also the first time I got to look at myself in earnest. And no, I don’t mean by looking at my reflection. JCMU was the first time I ever got to objectively review all the choices I had made in my life. By taking myself out of everything I knew to be familiar and comfortable, I got a small taste of what it was like being in the real world. I didn’t have my parents to constantly cover for any social faux pas that I made, and I didn’t have the crutch of English mastery to aid my ability to express myself. Even though JCMU brought me a multitude of good memories, there was one defining moment that happened right at the beginning of my stay that was set to change the course of my life as I knew it.

Beginnings and Motivations

Before going to JCMU, my knowledge of Japan was admittedly narrow. As a child, I was introduced to Japan in a rather traditional way. Essentially, I watched Pokémon and Sailor Moon when I was young and Naruto and Dragonball Z when I was older. Even outside of anime, I always knew that Japan existed in some capacity. In my geography lessons from elementary school, I learned that Japan’s capital was Tokyo, and it was slightly east of China and South Korea.

However, for a long time, that was the extent of my knowledge. In my mind, Japan was a fantastical land of cute animal-like companions and people who could shoot lasers out of their fingers. I carried that idea for a very large portion of my life, spanning from childhood to basically the first half of my undergraduate education. As I got older, I began to feel increasingly cognizant of the fact that what I saw wasn’t showing me the whole picture, and it would go on to become a major force at play during my years at Bard College.

As I fully threw myself into studying Japan after independently learning how to read and write hiragana and katakana in high school, that feeling that everything I was hearing about Japan wasn’t what it seemed kept getting stronger. Diving deeper into Japanese history, I began hearing things that my research in high school hadn’t turned up. Warring States and daimyo, Meiji and Showa, Akutagawa and Kunikida. Everything I was hearing felt new, but not in an exciting way. There were no Special Beam Cannons or Pikachus to be found. With every new fact I learned, I felt that I was getting farther and farther away from Japan than I had hoped.

Before long, I was in the spring semester of sophomore year. I had let nearly two years go by without getting anything meaningful out of studying Japanese other than superficial personal enjoyment. After hearing a conversation about junior year being the year most people went abroad in passing, something in my mind clicked. The reason I felt a disconnect from everything I was learning was that I never had the chance to experience it personally. While reverse-engineering a DeLorean and becoming an Asian version of Marty McFly seemed like a fun idea to bridge the gap, I knew that there was no way to directly relive the past without having been there already. However, knowing that the past inevitably informs the present, I figured that the next best idea would be to travel to Japan and experience its culture myself.

When searching for study abroad opportunities, I stumbled across JCMU after looking it up at the recommendation of my professor. At that point, my expectations for a study abroad program were not very well defined. All I wanted was to see Japan myself. I wasn’t sure what specifically I wanted to learn other than the language. I sent my application not expecting any meaningful return. I was pleasantly shocked when I received an email that I had been accepted several weeks later.

Even though I had already had plans to go to Japan with my classmates for a summer language intensive program, getting into JCMU felt completely different. It wasn’t directly affiliated with my school, so I felt like I was going into uncharted territory. Even as I went through a summer in Kyoto with Bard’s Japanese intensive program, my brain didn’t even register that it was my first time in Japan. Even though I was in Japan, it still felt like Bard. All I could think about was what adventures awaited me in Shiga.

One month after returning to America in August, I repacked my bags and flew back to Japan, eager to go on a journey that was intrinsically my own.

Taking the First Steps

Returning to Japan, I had no idea what to expect. My first experience amounted to no more than Bard Summer Camp. Even though we were in Japan, we still made the environment around us work like Bard and feel like Bard. Now that I was on my own, I had to find a new way to get by. I met a slew of people within a matter of minutes after finding the coach bus waiting for the JCMU students, and within a few days, we were promptly thrust into our classes before we could commit each other’s names to memory. When classes started, things didn’t get any slower. Right from the get-go, it was abundantly clear who could keep up and who was having trouble.

To some extent, I was mentally prepared for that kind of experience. From what I understood about Japanese culture from classes as well as Asian culture from personal experience, it was normal to be in a high-paced environment. As a countermeasure against the ruthless speed of the coursework, I doubled down on my homework time. Thanks to that, my grades started out relatively stable. However, as the year progressed, I began to feel increasingly empty inside. Homework became tedious, and it was getting hard to keep up with the pace of my classes. I spent hours on end in bed looking at the ceiling while life continued to speed on past me. My abroad adventure was starting to mimic the life at Bard circa sophomore year that I was so desperately trying to avoid.

One day, a friend of mine randomly approached me, asking if I wanted to go to karaoke. A group had already assembled, and I heard they were raring to go at any moment. Even though I had what felt like a mountain of homework, and I thought it would’ve been against my better judgement to leave it for later, I accepted the offer to join the group anyway. Along the way, we all got to talking about ourselves and our lives. When it came time for me to talk, I discussed my background in music and distant fascination with singing and the high school choir that was dampened by my anxieties about being a man with a higher voice. The people in our group not only comforted me about my past anxieties but also expressed their whole-hearted acceptance and appreciation of my candor. It was the first time I felt like anyone was truly listening to me and understanding what I was saying. When we finished for the night, I left immediately wanting to go again at the next available moment. Thankfully, there was no shortage of opportunities to do so. I went one more time with a different group and a second time with the same group as the first in December. Without me even realizing it, I had found myself a small family in the karaoke crew, which served to help me connect to the larger family of JCMU students.

This moment laid the groundwork for the most important lesson that being on the JCMU program taught me. Even though our work made up a large portion of our lives in Shiga, there were many aspects of life that just doing good work alone couldn’t fulfill. As important as academics were to JCMU, it was also ultimately an opportunity to try something new and take risks. After all, for several of us, this was our first time in Japan as well as our first time speaking in Japanese to Japanese people. Although I and a couple other students already had our first study abroad experiences before JCMU started, the new challenges we were being exposed to were different. For some, it was doing homestays to learn the Japanese lifestyle on a personal level. For others, it was connecting to the local communities of Shiga University and Shiga Prefectural University. For me, my challenges were overcoming my social barriers and being more open. Ultimately, the lesson I took away from that one night out at karaoke was to not be afraid to do something different from what was comfortable.

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Progressing Forward

As soon as I had that realization, a lot of things started to click into place. I was having much more fun, taking more chances, and still getting my work done. I also traveled much more frequently, even spending a weekend in Tokyo with my parents. Most importantly, I began to feel more confident in myself and comfortable with my identity. At the time, I couldn’t really explain the way things were going in any way other than attributing it to the magic of study abroad.

My time at JCMU went by like a whirlwind, and even with the offer to extend my stay, obligations at home prevented me from doing so. Returning home felt like going back to Kansas from Oz. When I arrived in Philadelphia, I felt like I was going back to a boring world of black-and-white. The magic I used to see in Bard had all but vanished. I fell into a slump at college, drawing inward socially and going back to my old ways of placing too much value on work over social events. Little did I realize that the lesson I learned in JCMU would come back and change my life one more time.

When I reached senior year, I was still unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I was informed that I was rejected from JET, and I felt like I had little options other than graduate school for what to do after college. As I looked up graduate institutions to apply to, I came across the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Upon a cursory glance, it wasn’t 100% of what I was looking for. Though its academic programs seemed interesting, the distance was a bit of a problem, and I had no idea how housing was going to go if there were no dorms. However, after looking at what other options I had for programs to potentially apply to, I ultimately ended up only applying to MIIS since every other program out there didn’t fully encompass what I was interested in exploring. I also wanted to take a chance at something I hadn’t had much experience in trying: translation. Although I did have the opportunity to take a Japanese translation seminar at Bard, my experience was fairly limited, and MIIS was one of few schools that had an actual translation program. A few weeks after applying, I was told that I had landed an interview with the admissions staff. Some weeks following my interview, I was officially informed of my acceptance.

When I first heard the news, I almost wanted to let the time I had before I needed to put in my deposit run out because I was scared. I knew that graduate school was usually more serious and more focused, and I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up. On top of that, I wasn’t expecting to get in at all. I had very little experience outside of jobs that my family connections were able to get me and only one internship under my belt. However, because I was accepted to MIIS, I found myself on the cusp of one more opportunity for something different just like when I went on that first night doing karaoke at JCMU. I realized that I hadn’t grown tired of just Bard, but the East Coast mentality as well. I felt myself getting tired of my social relationships never working out because people were not willing to put up with my quirks. On top of that, I wanted to put myself in a place where I could start fresh. Now that I had time to mature, I wanted to put myself to the test and try to make it on my own. With those thoughts in mind, I wrote the check for my deposit and mailed it to Monterey, excited to start a new life in sunny California. Had it not been for the self-confidence and courage that being at JCMU had instilled in me, I would probably not be at MIIS right now.

The JCMU experience is undoubtedly one that can change lives. It involves so much more than just hopping on a plane and traipsing around Shiga like a bunch of happy-go-lucky tourists (although it does have moments where it can feel like that). There are twists and turns as well as opportunities for new adventures and growth. It is thanks to these adventures that I not only learned to take risks with new things, but also came to understand the joy in doing so. Although I returned to a world of black-and-white when I came back to America, my heart and soul were in full Technicolor from self-realization, and I became cognizant of the importance of being on my own to learn life lessons.

Right now, I’m in the midst of one of my greatest adventures yet at MIIS, and I owe my being there to my time at JCMU for opening me up to that adventure in the first place. Ultimately, I can say with certainty that even a semester-long program with the JCMU is an unforgettable experience.


For others interested in following along Nick’s footsteps, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), a top-tier graduate school that specializes in international professional education, highly values the global experiences JCMU alumni are equipped with. All MIIS students are trained to utilize their advanced language training in preparation for entering the ever-expanding international workforce.

In the past, JCMU alumni have been awarded automatic minimum $12,000/yr scholarships toward tuition. Please contact Carol Johnson at carol.johnson@miis.edu if you are interested in furthering your international education at MIIS.

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