How I Survived JCMU’s Intensive Language Program (and how you can, too)

I was not prepared for how intense the JCMU Summer Intensive Language program would be. And you know what: I think a lot of the fault lies with my own misconceptions of what my life in Hikone would be like.

It’s not like JCMU didn’t try and warn me. I mean, “intensive” is literally in the program name. At pre-departure orientation, it was clearly explained to me that I would take 4 hours of class a day and could expect to do another 3-6 additional hours of homework and studying thereafter. Meeting with the instructors the day before my first class, we were told that due how quickly we would be moving through coursework, we have to really stay on top of our studies lest we rapidly fall behind.

Biking around Hikone before class starts

Despite their best efforts, I opted to replace their caution with my own unrealistically optimistic expectations: “Surely it won’t be that hard,” “They’re just trying to scare us,” and so on. So I waltzed into my 4th-year classroom the first day excited to do a few hours of work then be off to explore the rest of the day.

If you’ve ever been on an intensive JCMU language program, you may have come into the program underestimating it too. So you likely know how it felt when expectations and reality finally collided.

Classes were difficult that first day – I felt like I learned a lot, but it took all of my energy to keep up and make sure I wasn’t missing anything. However, the real “star” of the day came afterwards: the homework. With my Japanese classes at Michigan State, it wasn’t too hard to spend just an hour or so studying after class and feeling confident in the material discussed that day. At JCMU, it really did take the 3-6 hours the staff were warning me for.

JCMU summer 2014 – 4th year class

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all, though, was learning how to cope with this new academic reality. On campus, I always felt like if I studied the textbooks long enough, I would be absolutely prepared for class. I was so used to reaching a point in my studies where everything clicked, a sort-of “aha!” moment where darnit, this ~ている form actually makes total sense. However, try as I might, I never really got to that point in my studies at JCMU – especially at first. You see, the first night after classes at JCMU, I studied from the end of class till 2 in the morning, all without taking a break to eat or relax. Sure, the first few hours were pretty productive, but the sheer amount of content combined with my overworked brain prevented me from feeling like I could get a complete grasp on what I was learning just in one sitting. But I refused to accept this, so I continued studying in vein till the wee hours of the morning hoping to finally have it all click.

Unsurprisingly, there was no such moment. I kept up this pattern of death-by-overstudying for the next week, desperate for everything to start making sense. Despite my efforts, my JCMU teachers and I both noticed something peculiar: even as I studied by far the most time out of everyone, my grades were actually getting worse. I was a 4.0 student through my first 3 years of college, yet here I was scraping by with a 2.0 thus far. I was so stressed out by my falling grades I actually sent the Program Coordinator at JCMU’s East Lansing office a frantic message asking them about what in the world they thought I should do to magically increase my grades (now working full-time in the East Lansing office myself, the two of us get a chuckle about this every now and then).

One of my instructors, Kamiya-sensei, was very concerned that I came to class increasingly despondent from studying past midnight every night. After seeing it wasn’t producing the results I was hoping for, Kamiya-sensei decided it was time to sit down and talk with me about it around the end of the second week of class. She spoke with me about what my typical day looked like, my concerns about the course content, and my own emotions regarding the program.

Kamiya-sensei told me three things that immediately and positively impacted my time in Japan:

  1. You’re in Japan for a reason! Go out, practice using the language in day-to-day conversations, experience the culture and society you read about in the textbooks, and have fun while doing it.
  2. You should of course study, do your homework, and prepare for the next day’s coursework. However, there’s a difference between positive and futile study tactics. Your brain needs rest in order to work properly – takes breaks between study sessions to give your brain more time to recuperate.
  3. There are more ways to study than just from a book. Work together with your classmates and ask for their input. You can even reach out to JCMU’s English Language Program students and help each other out with each others’ language work.

Hearing a professor tell me I had to be more flexible with my study habits was something I really needed to hear.

Finally visiting Hikone Castle

I followed Kamiya-sensei‘s advice as best I could: I still studied 3-6 hours a day, but gone were the days of studying past midnight. I worked closely with my classmates, including the Japanese students studying English at JCMU. And above all, I made sure to dedicate at least some time to going out into the Hikone/Shiga community, learning more about my temporary life abroad. Low and behold, my experience became much better thereafter! I was enjoying my time exploring the area, I gained a group of really close friends, and my grades even improved to a 3.0 overall.

Not considering exactly what the intensive nature of JCMU would mean for me before the program definitely made me think more negatively about the experience at first. However, this wasn’t JCMU’s fault, but my own for trying to treat study abroad like any other on-campus class. After readjusting my thinking though, I really felt like I was making great strides with my studies – and having fun while doing it!

To current and future students traveling to Hikone: JCMU is a difficult academic experience. However, it’s so much more than just the classwork! Make sure to do your homework and prepare for tests, but also practice Japanese at the grocery store, explore the historic sites in Shiga (and elsewhere in Japan), and hang out with your friends – both classmates and Japanese students. Your experience (and maybe even your grades!) will be better for it.

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