For the Prospective Student Thinking About Studying Abroad

The issue of study abroad has been discussed over and over again on this blog, probably moreso than any other single topic. However, it really testifies to the experiences and rewards that studying abroad can bring to a student, and today, I am going to provide my two cents’ worth on the matter.

View of the Nara plain
View of the Nara plain, south of Kyoto.

I studied abroad in Kyoto, Japan, and while many students choose to study abroad for a semester, I chose to spend my entire year abroad with the Associated Kyoto Program, a Pomona-approved program. I am not exaggerating when I say it was a life-changing experience, and even now, I look back on my junior year as a year filled with fun, joy and wonder.

Before I wax lyrical about the country, I would like to state my motivations for studying abroad in Japan, and for a year.

  1. I had never been to Japan.
  2. I wanted to travel all over Japan cheaply.
  3. I wanted to improve my Japanese.
  4. I wanted to experience the year in a life of a Japanese family.

Studying abroad for a year allowed me to realize all these personal goals. I lived for the year with a host family that spoke only Japanese with a thick local dialect, which meant a I was completely immersed in the language. From the moment I woke up to the moment I slept, I had no option but to communicate in Japanese. Life was an endless Oldenborg language table.

Me and my host family - the Kojima family.
Me and my host family – the Kojima family.

Nevertheless, it was one of the best choices I made in college. Living with a host family for a year, you become a part of their lives, and they become a part of yours. You see them every single day and you become emotionally invested in the family. I beamed with pride when my little host sister learned to ride a bicycle and I got worried when my host mum became sick. My host parents tried with all their might to made sure I had an “authentic” Japanese experience – they celebrated every festival on the calendar, even those they might not necessarily have celebrated normally, and cooked various Japanese food for me to try (not that I was complaining). It was only when I was hugging my host mum goodbye at the airport, both of us bawling our eyes out, that I realized how serendipitous it was for me to be adopted by such a loving host family in Japan.

Taking in the beauty of the cherry blossoms.
Taking in the beauty of the cherry blossoms.

Studying in Japan for a year also allowed me to experience the four seasons, an integral part of Japanese culture. Arriving in hot and humid summer, I ate watermelon while hearing a typhoon rattling the windows of the house. Autumn came, and somehow my most vivid memories all consist of walking among mountain trails amidst red leaves. Winter was the season of endless snow, the fluffiest this Singaporean has ever encountered. And when the cherry blossoms bloomed, I knew spring had arrived and it would soon be time for farewells. Seasons were not mere changes in the climate – they were markers of time.

And of course, studying abroad for a year allowed me ample time to travel. I spent every break travelling, from the southernmost tip in Kagoshima to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido. I met people who spoke different dialects, ate different food, but all sharing the same warmth and friendliness towards a foreigner like me. Japan is often seen as a homogeneous society, but my travelling taught me how much difference and contrast this archipelago contains. (Click here to watch a video I made while traveling around Japan’s North East.)

Friends I made in Kyoto, from the US, Japan and Vietnam.
Friends I made in Kyoto, from the US, Japan and Vietnam.

As the only one from Pomona College in the program, I was also forced to meet new people and make new friends, both from other colleges in the US and also in the host university that I studied abroad in. Frankly, I had thought I was done with making new friends after the awkwardness of freshmen year, but studying abroad made me realize this was a process that will continue for the rest of my life – and that I should get used to it. Even now, I still keep in contact with many of the friends I made while studying abroad, even though we are scattered all over the world.

But most of all, studying abroad made me realize I can still lead a life without Pomona College. Right from the moment I entered the college, the school automatically became the biggest part of my life. I lived in the college, I went to classes in the college, I hung out with people in the college, I went to social events in the college – it was almost as if my life was Pomona College. Studying abroad not only allowed me to get out of the bubble, but it gave me confidence that I am not dependent on the school and its people – that I could meet new friends and lead a life beyond the comfort zone of the school. For a junior preparing for life after graduation, it was a valuable experience.

Waterfall Meditation at the end of autumn as part of my Japanese Religion class. Just a bit worst than awkward first meetings.
Waterfall Meditation at the end of autumn as part of my Japanese Religion class. Just a bit worse than awkward first meetings.

At the same time, it also made me appreciate some things in Pomona College that I took for granted – such as free access to a well-equipped gym. And the five minutes’ walking distance to class. And hanging out with friends late into the night. And minimal rain.

And so I am not exaggerating when I said studying abroad changed my life. The year spent in Japan will probably count as the most exhilarating and stimulating year in my four years of college. Japan assaulted my senses in a way SoCal never can, and even now, I am constantly brought back to my time abroad. Subtle things like hearing a song come up on my iPod, or detecting a familiar taste in the Japanese food I eat, or even just seeing photos of a place I went – they all stir up memories of my time in Japan, no doubt rose-tinted by nostalgia.

Having fun at the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Having fun at the Sapporo Snow Festival.

Some choose not to go abroad so that they can fully capitalize on the opportunities that Pomona College provides. Others choose to go for a semester to experience what it feels like to learn and live in another country. I chose to go for a year hoping to travel and learn the language but I returned with so much more – a family in another country, beautiful memories, a new outlook on life… and given the chance, I’ll do it all over again.