Author Archives: Julia-jeane Lighten

Takeaway Lessons from Japan Summer Service Learning 2019

As this year’s Japan Service Learning Program wrapped up, students were given the opportunity to reflect on the impact of the immersive, collaborative learning experiences in which they participated. In the second of two JSSL posts, participant Xuan He ’20 discusses the key lessons she learned during the program, and how she hopes to apply those lessons to her future experiences.

I am Xuan He, a senior Religion major at Middlebury College from Zhejiang, China. It is my third year studying Japanese. This July, I was selected as one of the Middlebury students to participate in the four-week Japan Summer Service Learning (JSSL) program at International Christian University (ICU), Middlebury’s partner university in Mitaka, Japan.

JSSL is an opportunity for students from various countries to experience Japanese culture firsthand and to learn about themselves, Japanese society, and their own societies through community engagement. Our cohort this year consisted of 16 students, including four Middlebury students, six ICU students, two students from Assumption University in Thailand, two students from Silliman University in the Philippines, and two from Union Christian University in India. Our academic foci also cover a wide range of disciplines, including Agriculture, Hospitality and Tourism Management, Industrial Design, Zoology, Religion, Japanese Language and Culture, Music, Economics, Psychology, History, Environmental Studies, and more.

Students work together to help clean up a blueberry farm.

JSSL was a life-changing experience for me. The program consisted of multiple parts. Between July 8-18, we divided into small groups to volunteer at various sites in the local Mitaka city area, including public elementary schools, alternative schools for students with special learning needs, elderly care homes, an environmental NPO, and community-gathering centers. We participated in a variety of service activities, such as organizing after-school activities for children, visiting English classes at local elementary schools, removing rotten blueberries from the ground at a local blueberry farm to prevent the spread of diseases, and performing a traditional style Japanese tea ceremony. On July 13, we each also had the opportunity to visit a local Japanese family. I bonded deeply with my host family. It was the highlight of my time in Mitaka.

Between July 19-23, as a group we travelled to a rural village located at the southern tip of Nagano Prefecture called Tenryu Village, about five hours west of Tokyo. There we conducted oral history interviews with five Tenryu village elders under the guidance of Professor Linda White from the Japanese Department at Middlebury College. We give our deepest gratitude to our interviewees who generously shared with us their life stories as well as the history of Tenryu Village in the last century. Learning about the history of the village through an individual’s life experiences taught us a humbling lesson: There is no one single Truth. Every person’s experience matters.

If I need to name one thing I took away from JSSL, I would say I learned that intercultural dialogue is not easy. Although in our group English was the lingua franca, we quickly learned that not everybody spoke English on the same level or in the same way. Inevitably, there were times of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and frustrations. However, these challenges did not break us but instead strengthened our connection over time. That is because we were a group of individuals who were willing to consider others’ perspectives, listen intently, and act upon the feedback we had received from others.

Willingness to open ourselves to each other was another special quality of our group. During the program, we regularly had reflection meetings or online reflection forums to share our experiences with each other. I really appreciated that everyone was willing to open up their hearts to share their honest feelings, ups and downs with each other. It was also very helpful to have various ways to share our thoughts with each other, because not everybody runs at the same speed.

These four weeks have brought me a few new insights about myself. During the program I discovered that I really enjoy working with a group of diverse, open-minded and collaboration-minded individuals. It was also rewarding to work with a team with diverse personalities, interests, and talents. One of our culmination projects was producing a booklet for the Tenryu villagers whom we interviewed during our Oral History project. We divided into small groups based on our interests and skills, but the process did not go smoothly from the beginning. Since it was a collaborative creative project, different individuals had different ideas of what the final product might look like. It took a lot of communication, patience, trust, and flexibility with change for us to eventually reach our outcome. It was the collaborative spirit of our group that allowed us to overcome numerous challenges and achieve an impressive outcome in less than two days.

Students interview a resident during the oral history component of the program.

Moving forward, I look forward to applying these lessons that I learned during JSSL about interpersonal relationships and intercultural communication to my existing relationships with other people and the ones I will build in the future. I believe these “soft” skills are a valuable asset that I can carry with me wherever I go. Last but not least, I am grateful for having attended JSSL because going to Japan has allowed me to gain more confidence in my Japanese skills. I am excited to continue studying Japanese in my last year at Middlebury.

In close, I would like to thank both the CCE and the CCI offices for funding my incredible experience in Japan this summer, Kristen Mullins and the staff members from ICU Service Learning Center, my program mates, as well as all the kind-hearted Japanese people I met on this trip. JSSL 2019 will always have a special place in my heart.

Thank you for sharing your powerful experiences, Xuan!

Japan Summer-Service Learning Program Expands Horizons

In its fourth year, JSSL incorporates a new reflection resource and deepens a powerful oral history component. In this first of two JSSL posts, students share what they learned from their immersive four weeks that recently wrapped up in Japan.

The Japan Summer Service Learning Program allows students from Middlebury, International Christian University (ICU), and member universities of the Service-Learning Asia Network to work and learn collaboratively with residents in the Tokyo area and in the rural Tenryumura. This year’s cohort spent July in Japan participating in four phases of the program: orientation, service and learning in Mitaka, service and learning in Tenryumura, and wrap-up and evaluation. Middlebury’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE) serves as one of the co-administrators of the program—Kristen Mullins, a CCE staff member, works directly with the students each summer. The Middlebury School in Japan and the Service Learning Center at International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka, Japan also co-administer the program alongside the CCE.

Group photo of Japan Summer Service Learning participants in front of building with sign above in Japanese.
Program participants and their partners gather together towards the end of the program.

Reflection is woven into the program, to help illuminate meaning in the many hands-on experiences gained during the four weeks. This year, students reflected on how the intercultural experience impacted them as participants in this program using the new Middlebury Experiential Learning Life Cycle (ELLC) hub website. This is a new reflection resource that educators across Middlebury College created together to support students across different immersive learning experiences to reflect on their learning.

Below are three reflections from JSSL participants Xiaoyu Wu ’22, Brenda Martinez ’22, and Sam Hernandez ’22 about the oral history component of the JSSL experience, a part of the program deepened by partnerships with Middlebury College’s Japanese Studies faculty.

Xiaoyu Wu ’22:

My name is Xiaoyu, and I am a participant in a summer program called JSSL (Japan Summer Service Learning). This program lasts for one month and provides participants the opportunity to experience urban and rural life of Japan. I enjoyed every minute of this program, but the thing that gave me the strongest impact was the monument of Chinese soldiers, which I saw in a rural village (Tenryu Village) in Japan.   

Sometimes I wonder why I am doing volunteer services in Japan while my own country needs help. The answer became clear after my journey to Tenryu Village. There were a lot of tragic stories in this village during WWII— Families broke apart because of the war; foreign soldiers and prisoners of war were forced to participate in the construction of the dam. When Kawakami san was giving this speech about the local history, I felt a mix of conflicted feelings— Anger, unfamiliarity, frustration… Why do we have to uncover the scars of the past again? The purpose is not to re-trigger the hatred but to remember the war, just as Kawakami san mentioned in his speech, “悲劇を忘れないように語り継、この事実を後世に伝えるのも我々の役目かなと思っています (I think we should not forget the tragedy, and it is our role to convey the story to the future generations).” 

There are indeed a lot of stereotypes exist between China and Japan, and it is our mission, the younger generations’ responsibility, to rediscover the good in humanity and break down these stereotypes. Because many people do not know that when forced labors were suffering, villagers shared their limited resources with them. Even after the war, there is a Japanese lady who places flowers in front of the monument every day for over 50 years.

Brenda Martinez ’22:

My name is Brenda Martinez and I am a rising sophomore at Middlebury College.  Through the Japanese Summer Service Learning Program, I have learned about the Mitaka and Tenryūmura community and they have learned about Mexican-American culture through volunteer service. However, one challenge that presented itself every time I interacted with either the Mitaka or Tenryumura community was the language and cultural barrier.

Since arriving in Japan, I was alert to everything and everyone around me during the day. I had to adjust to the social norms in Japan because I do not want to stand out. I sometimes felt the pressure of having to do things “normally” because I feel like I may be representing Americans/Mexicans to them and would not like them to form stereotypes based on my actions. I realized that I even exhibited the symptoms of culture shock. I felt the exhaustion from being alert and observant anytime I was outside my room. When I was at a place where people only spoke Japanese, I left exhausted after listening attentively to what they said in order to try to understand. I feel like I shouldn’t have been as hard on myself because it was my first time being in Japan. I shouldn’t have felt forced to adjust perfectly to the environment over the course of a week.

Although I can understand and speak some Japanese, my Japanese can sometimes be hard to understand and I have had to repeat myself or ask for a translator when I do not know how to say something in Japanese. However, there were not always bilingual people around me and the process of translating can be problematic for communicating because the time in between interpretations can make the flow of a conversation less natural. Despite these barriers, the children at ちQ人, an elementary school, were so nice and understood that we were not familiar with the language or culture. When I was playing games with them, they would go easy on me or try to change the game in order for me to better understand. I am also grateful that my host parents in Tenryūmura were patient with me as I tried to communicate with them in Japanese and would use hand motions to help me understand. I am honestly thankful to everyone I have worked with because they were willing to teach and learn from me despite our language and cultural barrier.

Sam Hernandez ’22:

A group of four students record a story of a man who is sharing his oral history.
Students gather local residents’ oral histories.

Hello, I’m Sam Hernandez and I am a participant in the Japanese Summer Service Learning program. During the month of July, me and an international team of students set out to participate in various service projects throughout the city of Mitaka and the rural Tenryū village. Something that has pleasantly surprised me about this experience was how easy it has been to work with people from various different cultures in a country where we are foreigners to make a difference in people’s lives.

While I say it has been easy, that means relatively. We have worked incredibly hard as a group and put in a lot of effort. But the reward we get, the memories, the experiences, the connections, they’re all so incredibly valuable that having to put in some effort is nothing. The benefits to this program will be lifelong. Not only that, but we have done meaningful service as well. The benefits for those we served are hopefully even more meaningful. Essentially, I learned that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. Whether it be helping your members make paper at a service center or pulling up ragweed in a park. Even just listening to an elderly citizen recount their youth and most valuable memories. We made an impact together as a team of various people from different backgrounds, beliefs, ideals, and goals. In only a month, we became friends. Our differences were embraced and welcomed. It was a most pleasant surprise.