Japan, Interrupted

For the four Middlebury students enrolled in the School in Japan, there’s no going back to the way it was.

The lives they’ve led since last September – immersed in the culture with roommates from Japan, speaking the language and going to class every day – changed forever at 2:46 p.m. (Tokyo time) on Friday, March 11.

That’s when an earthquake registering 9.0 on the Richter scale struck the northeastern coast of Japan with such a fury that it set off a 30-foot tsunami, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, killed thousands more, and plunged the island nation into a nuclear crisis.

“The ground didn’t shake. It swayed,” said Meghan Mendoza ‘12, who was with a friend in a Tokyo café when the quake hit. “My friend panicked and told me to get away from the windows so we ran outside in the middle of the street. For two to three minutes, the cement felt like water under my feet, almost like waves.”

Mendoza and fellow juniors Jerry Romero and Elliott Yoo were in Tokyo on March 11 enjoying the five-week break between the second and third trimesters of their year abroad. Their fourth comrade in the program, Lia Tsai Schnackenberg ’12, had just gone home for spring break a few days earlier.

“I was in bed in Manhattan when the earthquake hit,” she recalled a week later. “I woke up to e-mails and posts on Facebook from my friends who were concerned about my safety. I had no idea what they were referring to until I opened the homepage of the New York Times. It was a shock.”

Using Facebook and Skype, Schnackenberg was able to determine that all of her friends, her tomódachi, back in Japan were safe in the immediate aftermath of the quake. “But I continue to fear for everyone else there, because of the nuclear crisis and radiation threat.”

The day after the quake, Elliott Yoo flew from Tokyo to Australia on vacation. “By leaving the next day I managed to escape the panic and huge lines at the airport after the announcement of radiation. I am hoping that the [study-abroad] program will continue.”

Unfortunately for Yoo and his three classmates, the School in Japan has been suspended for the spring of 2011. On March 16, the College advised the two remaining students, Mendoza and Romero, to leave Japan. Then on March 29, the College informed the quartet that it could not offer the program as scheduled from mid-April through June because of the risks associated with the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

The 2010-2011 academic year at the School in Japan was destined to be an historic one. It was the inaugural year for Middlebury’s newest operational school abroad. The College had aligned with a host institution in Tokyo, the International Christian University, and Sanae Eda, a veteran professor from Middlebury’s Japanese School, was retained as director. Plus, four excellent students were committed to studying for the year.

Now they are in limbo, weighing their options for the future having earned only two-thirds of the academic credit they were expecting. The College is advising them to attend the Japanese School this summer, but all four wish they could go back to ICU instead of to Oakland, Calif., for Middlebury’s eight-week immersion experience.

“I would like to finish the journey,” said Jerry Romero.

“After about 30 seconds of subtle shaking, the tremors in Tokyo made it hard to walk,” he recalled. “And since I’m from San Antonio, Texas, I did not know the protocol. So I waited by the emergency exit in the dorm in case we had to evacuate. The doors and cabinets shook violently, and the earthquake was strong enough to break open the windows.”

For Romero the events in Japan “were nothing short of horrendous,” but the kindness of the Japanese people helping each other, even when they didn’t have food or shelter, was a  “reminder of the beauty in humanity.”

In all likelihood, the four students will return to Middlebury next September feeling unfulfilled. Memories will linger about how they had to leave their friends and teachers behind, many without saying goodbye. There are people they’ll never see again and things they’ll never get to do.

For more than six months, the city of Tokyo was their oyster. With their language skills and immersion into the culture, the Middlebury students were almost no different than any other Japanese college student. Then, in an instant, it all changed. They were the Americans again, on their way home.

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  1. […] were abroad in Tokyo at the School in Japan when the earthquake struck on March 11th. In this Middlebury Magazine feature they share their sadness at the tragedy, disappointment at an abroad cut short, and deep […]

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