Intermission, ft. KEIO!

After hustling through my first year of graduate school, trying my best to stay on top of deadlines and final papers, I had devoted very little time to thinking about potential summer endeavors. While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you’re pushed to find the best internships possible during the summer– and I, being completely and utterly myself, never had a summer internship. I was always just doing something else– studying abroad, working with Orientation for new students or sometimes just relaxing. I’ve never been particularly pressed about finding unpaid employment during my summer breaks, even to this day.

Nevertheless, I heard through the grapevine that American Studies graduate students often had the opportunity to work as Course Instructors for the Keio program. Simply put, the program is a “Cross-Cultural Collaboration,” in which the College of William and Mary hosts Japanese students from Keio University for two weeks, organizing a set of lectures on American culture for them, while also facilitating research projects on American/Japanese culture that they began back in Tokyo and taking them on trips to explore Williamsburg, the greater Tidewater Area, Richmond and for the last four days, we will be in Washington, D.C.

Fun fact about me: I’ve actually done a program very similar to this when I was in high school. I went to Princeton for ten days, was matched with a Japanese roommate/buddy, and while our roommates attended English classes, we spent our mornings learning about Japanese language and culture. Seven years later, it’s still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and I’m actually still good friends with one of the Japanese girls that lived in a suite with me. The experience seemed to have stuck, because I applied to work as an instructor for Keio and was excited about the opportunity to work with Japanese students again.

The end of my leisurely summer days of working at Michaels and writing my Masters thesis snuck up on me so quickly. I spent the end of July trying to piece together a Masters thesis draft to send to my advisor so she could take a look at it while I was doing Keio. After that got submitted (65 pages and 18,000 words later…), the start of Keio was staring me in the face. Our days are structured fairly simply. The Japanese students have breakfast, the course instructors (me) pick them up in 12 passenger vans and take them to class, they have a lecture by an American Studies professor or an ABD grad student, they break into Dialogue Class where CIs (me again) help clarify the lecture and facilitate discussion on the day’s themes. They go to lunch, then we drive them to the library, where they spend most of the afternoon working on their Focus Group Presentations. There are six groups (that are not the same as their Dialogue class) that have a different research topic and each group has a W&M undergrad to assist them with their work. They will present their findings (!!!) tomorrow actually, and I am presently killing time until my focus group is ready for me to listen to their presentation in preparation for tomorrow’s big day. Then, depending on the day, they might have free time for dinner, or dinner might be catered, and there are occasionally that go with the day’s lecture. One example was the two hours we spent dancing to a live jazz band on Wednesday night after the morning’s lecture on American music. Depending on the day’s events, we (the CIs) drop the students off at their hotels anywhere from 7 to 11 pm (sometimes later) and I go home and pass out before I have to get up and do it all over again.

It’s a lot of running around and doing logistics on the fly and driving around in vans that are closer to small buses than cars, but teaching my Dialogue class has been one of the most reward experiences I’ve had thus far with the program. I have eight students, one boy and seven girls, and they’re all fairly shy, with the exception of one of my girls, who’s always willing to share her opinions with me. Despite their initial shyness, my students are some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. They think very deeply about all the lectures we attend and even if they aren’t comfortable sharing verbally, they write journal/blog entries every few days on the lectures they attend, the experiences they’re having and any thoughts they might be having about American culture, so I get to hear from them all at the very least through those.

So far, they’ve been exposed to some really great topics, some of which are complicated even for professors and grad students, let alone Americans in general: we’ve had a lecture on an introduction to cultural studies, one on the social geography of Williamsburg and on gender and sexuality. We’ve heard about race relations in America, music, consumption and citizenship, and today, American food. One line that we can draw through all of the lectures is the presence of race and economic impact. My students were shocked to learn that everything in America is, or can be, racialized, even down to the food we eat. (Thinking, for example, about how Black Americans attempted to integrate food counters.) One of our lecturers and my fellow graduate student, Khanh, aptly said, “You can’t study anything in America’s history without talking about race.” I try my best not to shower them in my own opinions, but tell them enough about the history, the straight up facts, so that they can come up with their own opinions. When I’m not running from activity to activity, I’m usually posted up somewhere grading their journals and thinking about how, logistically, we’re going to get to the next point on our itinerary.

As it’s Friday, we’ve almost come to the end of the portion of the program that is in Williamsburg. On Monday, we’ll take a bus up to Washington D.C. and have the remainder of the program there, and they will depart either back to Japan or to other travel destinations on Friday morning from Dulles. I’m looking forward to D.C. mostly because I love having excuses to go into the city– I’d live in D.C. if I could. There will be a lot more freedom for everyone involved, because the students can go wherever they want on the metro or by bus. (Public transportation is so much more reliable in bigger cities; even in Charlottesville, traveling by bus wasn’t the worst thing in the world…most of the time, but in the sleepy suburbs of Virginia? Not so much.)

When everything’s said and done, almost any new experience is made unforgettable by the people you get to interact with, my relationships with my Japanese students and the William and Mary undergrads have really pulled me through. I mentally do an excited dance when one of my shiest students approaches me about a question she had that she didn’t want to ask in class. I spend a lot of time laughing and swapping stories with my most outgoing student, but also smiling at my one male student, who likes to just be a dork 9 times out of 10. Even though logistics for lunch and dinner are bananas most of the time, once I’m sitting with a group of students, I can’t help but enjoy myself. They’re so lively and everything is new and exciting for them– the energy is infectious. Not to mention, I’ve gotten close with a few of the American grads too. One boy is my “shade” partner in crime and I’ll never forget how I almost died laughing while dancing the cha-cha over-dramatically with my girl, Kate. These students are at the core of why I’ll have fond memories of this program. I’m so glad to have met them and after reflecting a little bit, I’m excited all over again to see what memorable gems this last week will hold.

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