Across the Pacific to Pacific

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In the tranquil town of Forest Grove, Oregon, Pacific University stands as a pillar of
higher education and a fusion of diverse cultures. It is here that a compelling story of Japanese
exchange students unfolds, offering a glimpse into the transformative power of cross-cultural

Let’s start with Mai Sugiyama, an enthusiastic student hailing from Japan, who chose Pacific University for a medley of reasons. Mai’s introduction is succinct, “My name is Mai Sugiyama. I am from Aichi, Japan,” but behind this brief self-presentation lies a journey rich in experiences and aspirations. Mai takes a moment to share her motivations for choosing the path of an exchange student. “I major in English,” she explains, “and in my field of study, it is common to study abroad. Speaking English in Japan is important. If you can speak English in Japan you can get a higher paying salary.” Her words lay bare the practical foundation on which her journey was built – education and career opportunities.

   Mai’s journey from Japan to the United States brought her face to face with a tapestry of cultural differences. She reflects on some notable cultural differences that intrigued her, particularly the interactions within  Japan and the United States. “People are very friendly here,” she observes, her eyes sparkling with wonder. “Strangers often compliment you, and even my roommate casually asks me if I want to go out. I feel bad when I can’t give her a “yes” or “no” answer. In Japan, indirect communication would be considered rude, but she doesn’t get upset.” Mai’s experiences shine a spotlight on the complex form of understanding of cross-cultural communication, where conversation and changes in language, everyday life, and behavior provide fertile ground for exploration.

   Moreover, Mai offers valuable advice to fellow Japanese students who might be contemplating study abroad opportunities in the United States or specifically within  Pacific University. Her wisdom is straightforward and pragmatic. “Cultural values should be your compass,” she advises, emphasizing the importance of embracing and understanding the host culture. She also stresses the significance of engaging with people from diverse backgrounds, as this not only enriches the experience but also aids in improving English language skills. “Making friends with people who are not from Japan can be uncomfortable since it is hard to communicate. But being around people who naturally speak English allows you to grow, pick up on new slang, and overall makes learning English more enjoyable.” Mai’s advice reflects the challenges and rewards of transitioning from a collectivist Japanese culture to the more independent American lifestyle.

   For Mai, the journey isn’t just about academics. With similar interests among college students and individuals, Mai is just an example of how people benefit from the universal language of music or sports. She eagerly participates in various extracurricular activities, including joining the jazz band and symphonic band, where she showcases her musical talents, playing both the trombone and piano. These activities offer more than just a creative outlet; they serve as a gateway to connect with native English speakers and broaden her horizon into her overall experience as an exchange student.

   To gain insight into the program’s historical roots and its ongoing evolution, we turn to Atsuko Rothberg, International Programs Coordinator, and Shpresa Halimi, Director of International Programs and Senior International Officer. They provide illuminating and professional perspectives on the program’s rich history and dynamic development from the program in Pacific.

   Atsuko Rothberg opens with a captivating historical fact, underscoring Pacific University’s long-standing tradition of hosting Japanese students. “Did you know that Pacific welcomed Japanese students as early as the 1870s?” she reveals. “One of these students even stayed at the university President’s house, which was located in the current student health center.” This historical connection serves as a testament to Pacific University’s deep-rooted commitment to international education and engagement.

   Pacific University boasts partnerships with six esteemed institutions in Japan, with Kansai Gaidai University (KGU) in Osaka being the oldest direct exchange partner. The partnership was established in 1995. Atsuko elaborates on the unique features of KGU, a cornerstone of the program. “We have sent 147 students to KGU and received 152 students so far,” she explains. What sets KGU apart is its dual-degree program. In this program students can complete their first two years in Japan before transferring to Pacific for their third and fourth years. This unique arrangement allows students to earn diplomas from both KGU and Pacific, enriching their educational experiences with a global perspective.

   Typically, the duration of the exchange program for students is one semester, although some opt for a full academic year. These numbers paint a vivid picture of the program’s reach: 209 students from Pacific University embark on this international journey, while the university welcomes 250 incoming students from our 6 partnerships in Japan, further enhancing the vibrant Pacific community.

   Shpresa Halimi, when asked about the program’s future, envisions expansion, not only in terms of students but faculty as well. “There are plans to include graduate students and programs such as an MBA in the exchange programs,” she shares. The program also aims to foster faculty exchanges between Pacific University and its Japanese partners, forging deeper connections and cultural enrichment. The English Language Institute’s “Hospitality Internship Program” is also slated for expansion, strengthening bonds between institutions and intensifying cultural exchange.

   The Japanese exchange program at Pacific University weaves together a tapestry of diverse narratives, each thread representing a unique story that underscores the profound influence of education and cross-cultural interactions. Within this mosaic, Mai Sugiyama’s personal odyssey stands as a testament to the program’s transformative potential. Her initial struggles grappling with the nuances of language and navigating unfamiliar slang, as she expressed, “I had a hard time with slang. I have even tried to look up the definitions on the internet to learn what they mean,” echo the broader challenges faced by participants, reflecting the program’s authentic and impactful nature.

   Mai’s early struggles with language and slang paved the way for a profound journey toward a deeper understanding of the English language, enriching not just her vocabulary but also her ability to connect with native speakers on a more sincere level. The hurdles posed by the language barrier, she candidly admits, occasionally led to challenges in expressing her feelings, resulting in moments of miscommunication. However, these challenges were not roadblocks but rather significant milestones in her personal growth. Each miscommunication became an opportunity to refine her communication skills, fostering resilience and adaptability. Through these experiences, Mai not only learned to navigate the complexities of a foreign language but also discovered the power of patience and persistence, qualities that became fundamental in her journey of cultural integration.

   Mai’s sentiments resonate with those of the program’s coordinators and the myriad students who embark on this cross-cultural adventure. Pacific University’s Japanese exchange program embodies the spirit of unity in diversity, fostering connections that bridge continents and transcend language barriers.

   In conclusion, one fact becomes abundantly clear: the Japanese exchange program at Pacific University transcends mere academics; it’s about transformation, cultural exchange, and lasting connections. It’s a story of shared experiences and mutual understanding that unfolds with each student who participates in this life-changing journey.

   In Mai Sugiyama’s words, “If I had a chance, I’d come back.” Her personal statements and experiences encapsulates the unique essence of the Japanese exchange program—a program that touches hearts, provides opportunity for growth, and leaves an indelible mark on the lives it connects with. It’s a testament to the power of education in bringing people together, transcending borders, and forging lasting connections.


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