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!

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