Three weeks in Matsuyama, Japan was an unforgettable experience for several Joliet Junior College students and professors who went there to study abroad in May. The group traveled with other students and professors from the College of Lake County (CLC) in Grayslake, Ill. The trip was funded in part by a U.S. Department of Education scholarship grant for students.
One of those students was JJC’s Mariela Guzman of Joliet. While there, she took courses at Ehime University in Matsuyama, which is not far from Hiroshima.
Before this adventure, the furthest Guzman had traveled was to Wisconsin – and she’d never been on a plane. Guzman said she chose to study abroad in Japan because she wanted to experience something new.
“It’s definitely a life-changing experience,” she said. “You have to be able to adapt to a different country, a different culture, and different social norms.”
One cultural difference Guzman found surprising was how often she had to take off her shoes – especially when entering a home or building.
“You have to take off your shoes every time you enter,” she said, explaining that it is disrespectful to bring anything “dirty” inside.
Instead of shoes, slippers are worn indoors. Guzman said families even have a separate set of slippers designated for restroom use only.
During one weekend, Guzman stayed with a host family. Guzman said she enjoyed seeing how the husband, wife, and siblings took their family roles seriously, and were very supportive of one another.
After the weekend was over, her host family visited Guzman at the university on a regular basis. This custom, of making international guests feel welcome, is very common among many Japanese.
“They do everything in their power to make sure that you are satisfied,” Guzman said.
Tamara Brattoli, a JJC English professor who blogged during the three-week venture, agreed.
Instead of shaking hands, bowing is a common practice in Japan. When the JJC and CLC group first arrived in the country, Brattoli said several airline employees bowed their heads as a sign of welcome.
Brattoli, who brought along her 16-year-old son, Anthony, said she experienced something similar after walking into a department store one morning.
“We were the first people in the store,” she said. “We walked in, and all the workers were lined up. As we walked through the department store, they all bowed as we walked by.”
Though Brattoli did not teach any classes while in Japan, she spent much of her time observing classrooms and helping students with their English. One of the most interesting things Brattoli learned was the social system of Japanese schools.
Elementary students are allowed to be lively and have fun in class. But in high school, students are very disciplined, pay attention, and study – even when no one is looking.
In her blog, Brattoli noted: “The single most surprising event we witnessed was the study hall. A classroom of at least 30 students… were actually studying … and there was no teacher present. We were stunned that they would sit quietly without a teacher there to oversee them.”
Brattoli said she learned that strict disciplining begins in junior high, preparing young people for their new high school lifestyle.
Another culture shock, according to JJC student Stefanie Kosinski, was the food. She said the Japanese mostly eat dark meat, and 80 percent of meals include seafood. This was difficult for Kosinski because she doesn’t like fish.
“But it made me try things,” she said.
Japanese sweets, on the other hand – were delicious, she said. Some of her favorites were unique flavors of ice cream (including cheesecake and blue raspberry), and citrus flavored Kit-Kat bars.
Brattoli said the only difficult thing about staying in Japan for three weeks was not being able to fluently read or speak Japanese.
“That’s challenging, not being able to read signs, the schedule on the street car, place names,” the English teacher said. “To me, it was like being illiterate for the first time. You don’t realize how much you read.”
JJC student Eddie Troncoso said he would definitely encourage others to study abroad in Japan.
“Even if it doesn’t tie into your major, and you just want to visit another part of the world and experience a different culture – I’d say go,” he said.
Next year, Brattoli is planning for a similar study abroad trip to Japan.
In the works at JJC is a longer-term student exchange program with Ehime University, as well as with other international universities. The hope is that by the 2014-2015 school year, JJC could have a more prominent role in international education, either by sending a larger number of students to study abroad for as long as a semester or a year, or by having more students from other countries come to JJC, according to Berta Arias, JJC’s international education coordinator.
“The hope is that we will have as many possibilities for our students to have this experience in any shape they can,” Arias said.
Arias thinks international education is important to a student’s learning experience because it introduces them to a new culture and helps them understand global issues.
For more information about international education at JJC, visit http://www.jjc.edu/academics/divisions/arts-sciences/english-world-lang/international-education/Pages/study-abroad.aspx#why.
To read more about JJC and CLC’s trip to Japan, visit Brattoli’s blog at www.jjcgoestojapan.wordpress.com. To inquire about studying abroad in Japan with a JJC group next year, contact Brattoli at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 815-280-2470.