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.