Category Archives: Study Abroad

#KeioChronicles: Round Three

Summer weather is dwindling to a close and the semester has already started. But before I launch full swing into this semester’s work, I want to take a moment to reflect on my experiences with the Keio Cross-Cultural Collaboration, a two week long exchange program with students from Keio University in Japan.

2019 was my third year working with the program– I was a Course Instructor in both 2017 and 2018. This year, however, I decided I was more interested in the administrative side of the program. I take pride in my organizational and logistics skills, and after seeing the program from one side, I had been taking note of things I could potentially improve if given the opportunity.

So I applied for the Academic Director position, and after sweet-talking my friend into applying for the Assistant Director job, we were selected in early March. One of the biggest differences between between a Course Instructor and being on the Director team is that despite the students arriving in Virginia-in-August heat and humidity, Keio starts when it’s still cold outside. My new position required me to conduct interviews for the Course Instructor jobs, held by American Studies graduate students, and for the Peer Assistant ones, held by W&M undergrads. I alone was responsible for planning the Academic portion of the program, so I had to immediately begin reaching out to potential lecturers, making sure that we had a good trajectory and flow through the various facets of American culture that we would be introducing them to. By the time early summer rolled around, I had a full staff, an academic plan with lecturers on deck and a long list of other miscellaneous things which had to be taken care of before the students arrived on August 5.

Even with the five months of preparation time, the summer flew by and August 5th was staring me in the face. I hurried to prepare the blog on which the students would write their reflective journal entries, do roommate assignments for the hotels, update the handbook and syllabus, and get the students all the information they would need for the program well in advance. I was also prepping for our staff orientation the morning before the students’ arrival, making sure staff was set, while also generally panicking (as I tend to do. I’m a worrier).

On the day of the students’ arrival, I rode to DC on a charter bus along with a PA to meet the group at Dulles Airport and to escort them back to campus. We waited with dwindling enthusiasm as an hour passed after their scheduled arrival, then another, and another. Finally, three hours after they’d landed, the group finally made it through customs after being caught in a traffic jam of six other international flights landing at the same time. We made a quick pitstop for dinner before pulling into our hotel for the trip around 10 PM.

Naturally, everyone was jet lagged and exhausted when we started our program in earnest the next day. Our lectures were interesting and also challenging: Professor Kitamura did an introduction to cultural studies while Professor Knight did a history of Williamsburg; Professor Ely managed to distill 400 years of U.S. Race Relations into 45 minutes and Professor Johnson gave an interesting talk on megachurches for our U.S. religions day. Professor Losh did an excellent talk on digital feminism, followed by an impressive talk on pop culture by American Studies Ph.D. candidate Khanh Vo and ending with a lecture on U.S. social movements by Dr. Singh. Each lecture was followed by break out sessions called Dialogue Classes, where Grad Student CIs helped students through the more difficult aspects of the lectures in smaller group settings. The lecturers would visit each small group to answer questions and talk about their lecture more in depth.

Some days were supplemented with extracurricular activities such as visiting local churches on our religion day and talking a walk through Colonial Williamsburg following Professor Knight’s lecture. We also spent a morning visiting a local business, the Canon company!

Afternoons were typically spent in Swem library where the students could work on their group research presentations on topic of their choice. We had groups doing everything from a comparative look at transportation to elementary school in U.S. and Japan to the function of vending machines in the two countries. In our final full day in Williamsburg, the groups presented their final projects, which we recorded to send to Keio University, before we went off to Washington D.C.

In D.C., the students were much more on their own than they were in Williamsburg. Due to the difficulty of getting around via public transportation and/or cabs and ubers, we (and by “we” I mean the CIs) shuttled the students around the city in 12 passenger vans. But in DC, they were free to metro, take taxis and walk any and everywhere they wanted to go, so long as they met us for the required activities. As dialogue classes, groups visited the Smithsonian museums; we went on a group tour of the national mall and we visited the Japanese Embassy, where two selected students gave a presentation of what they had accomplished over the last two weeks.

Before I knew it, we were at the last night of the program, which included a Farewell Dinner and Talent show. It was filled with singing and dancing and merrriment, gift giving, tearful hugs and so many selfies. I was really proud of myself for having gotten through most of the goodbyes without crying, but the next morning, after everyone had hugged their new American friends and teachers for the last time, I boarded the bus taking them back to Dulles for a final headcount. When I had the right number of students, I took a deep sigh, smiled and waved at them. All of them waved back at the exact same time and I immediately started to cry.

As the bus rolled away from the hotel, I took a breath, realizing with pride that I had not only managed to get through another Keio, but that I had successfully planned and executed this whole thing.

**

I continue to do Keio because a part of me, the 16 year old part of me that learned about Japanese culture for the first time at High School Diplomats, never grew up. I never get over the joy of learning about a new culture, or seeing others experience a new culture. It reminds me that the world is so big and that I have a lot to see.

So, until next year, Keio.

Thanks for everything.

Black Girl Does Oxford

by Kristen Barrett

Sometimes chasing your childhood dreams exposes you to some mind-rattling realities. You dream of writing a young adult novel only to learn about the competitive world of publishing. You dream of pursuing a Hollywood acting career only to learn about the “casting couch.” You dream of attending a prestigious United Kingdom university only to learn about its paucity of black students.

I distinctly remember the first time my mother mentioned the Rhodes Scholarship to me, a bright-eyed eighth grader in love with Jane Austen. In those days, I daydreamed about the British countryside and imagined myself studying Chaucer at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world.

Fast forward to my matriculation as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia. I set my sights on a more immediate goal: attending the UVA in Oxford Summer Program. The Jefferson Scholar Foundation pays for every scholar to participate in one study abroad program the summer before their junior year, and from the moment I heard about UVA in Oxford, I knew that would be the program for me. Luckily, the head professor accepted me into the program, and I arrived at University College on July 1 filled to the brim with excitement.

Approaching the other UVA students, I noticed something immediately. I was the only black student in the program. A familiar feeling churned in my stomach. An engulfing self-awareness that can easily morph into a feeling of empowerment or isolation, responsibility or burden, opportunity or affliction. From this moment, I knew that depending on my attitude I would either feel like a representative of black excellence the program needs or merely a cultural outsider.

This feeling became all too familiar to me in high school. Growing up in my 90 percent white all girls school, I carried this awareness with me every day. Almost always, it would empower me to embrace my racial identity and to explore the joy of pursuing interracial relationships. But sometimes, on those low energy days, it would bury me in insecurity.

When dreaming of Oxford as an eighth grader, I never considered how white such an institution would be. Considering Oxford’s undergraduate numbers, only 2 percent of undergraduate students are black, and some of the colleges go years without accepting more than two black students. I did not consider how the United Kingdom’s identity politics vastly differ from the United States’ or that racism toward blacks exists on both sides of the pond. I did not ask myself: what affects my happiness more, the prestige of the institution or the ethnic makeup of the student body and faculty?

This quandary and its accompanying feeling hung over my head during my first few days at University College. It pushed to the forefront of my mind when I saw that all of the program’s professors were white men. It left a bad taste in my mouth when I noticed the only black people in University College were the ones who served us tea. It caused me to question my place in the program.

The story could end there, but it doesn’t. After receiving some motivational words from my best friend back home, I gave myself an ultimatum. I could waste precious energy worrying over whether I belonged or I could claim my deserved space in the program myself. I chose the latter.

For the rest of my time in the program, I chose empowerment, responsibility, and opportunity over isolation, burden, and affliction. I embraced my status as “the black girl,” and I ran with it. This was one black girl no one was about to forget. I incorporated race relations into my political discussions with my friends; I made allusions to black romantic comedies like The Best Man; and most importantly, I expressed all my idiosyncrasies that come along with me — whether they were stereotypically “black” or not. I was not the spokesperson for my race, but I was the spokesperson for Kristen Rochelle Barrett.

This outlook immediately improved my experience at University College. With my insecurity held at bay, I delved deeply into my course on politics of the European Union, frolicked gleefully around Oxfordshire with my new friends, and to no one’s surprise found that my dream university lived up to all of my expectations. The scholarly college town with Harry Potter style cafeterias and boutique store-lined streets won my heart.

Oxford taught me a lesson in self-confidence. What I like is what I like. Given my love for nineteenth century transatlantic literature, it is highly likely that I will end up in a graduate program with very few black scholars. My experience in Oxford reassured me that I can not only survive but also thrive in such an environment. I do not need to be surrounded with people similar to me in race, religion, gender, etc. in order to flourish as a person. As long as I have a support system of dutiful friends and family, I will blaze trails.


Kristen Barrett is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, where she is pursuing a major in English and a minor in Drama. Her hometown is Nashville, TN. Her favorite black intellectuals are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and her parents. She is passionate about encouraging black girls to pursue higher education, and she wants to attend graduate school herself in order to study depictions of people of African descent in transatlantic nineteenth-century English literature. Only God knows what the future holds, but she is ready for the #BlackGirlMagic!