I had grown up in a small town and attended college where I grew up, so I knew that I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone and go somewhere very different from home. Going into college, I didn't know much about study abroad, but once I learned it was possible, I knew it was something I had to do. I knew that it would educate me about a culture beside my own, which was really the goal.
Why did you choose IES Abroad’s program in Tokyo?
I chose IES Abroad in Tokyo because IES Abroad has a close partnership with Penn State and I noticed their program first. After reading all the details about their program and others, I decided that IES Abroad seemed to provide the most immersive experience: host families, the e-pal program, field trips to all different parts of the country, and not to mention their rigorous, but not overwhelming, academics.
IES Abroad offers what no other program does, which is the field placement program. Once a week, I worked in a Tokyo business and observed the cultural influences on the business's practices, which I later wrote a report on. Field placement was a valuable aspect of the program and better prepared me for working in Japan in the future.
What was your favorite part about Tokyo?
Tokyo is the most populated city in the world. That being said, it has something for everyone. From 5 a.m. tuna auctions at Tsukiji Market to crazy fashion trends in Harajuku to a wild Shibuya night-life scene to the anime town of Akihabara to climbing mountains not far from the city, Tokyo was always a city that appealed to every aspect of my personality, and anything I could imagine was accessible by just a short train ride. I was never bored in Tokyo, and if I was, I could just walk down the street and I'd likely end up finding something I'd never seen before.
What made your experience abroad unique?
Attending classes at Kanda University (KUIS) and meeting all of the students on campus. My Japanese friends were certainly the highlight of the program, and definitely what made it unique. I never knew what kind of fun things they'd want to introduce me to and there was never a dull moment with them, even if we were just doing homework together.
The students at KUIS are truly motivated and educated individuals with a broad perspective and a huge desire to make friends with the international students on campus, which was something I never could have imagined. We would travel together, celebrate birthdays together, watch movies together, and being in their presence was always a pleasure. Something as unexpected as their friendship was one of the best parts of the whole program.
How did local IES Abroad staff support you throughout your program?
The IES Abroad Tokyo center staff are incredible. When I complained to Ishikawa-san that I'd been sick, she dropped what she was doing and walked me right to the clinic to help me see a doctor. Seeing as she's also the field placement coordinator, she would sometimes send us messages to tell us she hoped we were having a good day at placement. Lee-san was awesome as well. I worked with her on student council and her motivation was always that the students have fun. She is an expert organizer and we all have her to thank for the incredible trip to Okinawa. Shin-san and Caleb are always available for a quick laugh and they're so supportive if you ever need to talk to them about any issues you're having.
The IES Abroad center staff really made our time abroad go on without a stitch.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
That's a good question, but it's not hard to answer. I think, for sure, I would stop being so nervous about speaking Japanese and just accept that practice makes perfect and that I'm going to have to sound stupid before I sound smart. I was always so afraid of messing up that I was sometimes too afraid to speak Japanese. I would avoid saying anything, even if I knew that my sentence structure was correct, because I was so afraid of messing up and looking dumb. That's such a bad attitude to have when learning a language because you can't improve without practice. I would definitely just ignore my worries and speak Japanese, whether I sounded dumb or not.
Describe a typical day in your life in Tokyo.
I would usually wake up pretty early and eat breakfast with my host mom. She was such a good cook, so I always looked forward to her meals! I would head to campus by train and get to class. All the Japanese courses started at 9 a.m. and they were always fun (if you're in level two like I was, you'll have Matsuo-sensei and he's a true boss). We did really useful things in class, like speaking to Japanese students, calling restaurants, or visiting elementary schools.
I'd eat lunch in SALC with all of my friends. We all sat around these large yellow sofas and joked around our bento boxes. It was always a healthy mix of Americans and Japanese food.
In the afternoon, I usually had IES Abroad area studies courses. Their classes are once a week for three hours at a time, for good reason (so you're not stuck in class all the time and you have time to explore Tokyo!). Our teachers usually gave us breaks so that the classes didn't drag on, but they were often really interesting and thought-provoking topics so we didn't mind staying for three hours.
After classes, I'd either head back to SALC to study or I would go to tennis club. The clubs at KUIS are fun because they almost always consist of more Japanese students than foreigners, so it's an awesome way to meet new people and to practice your language skills. I wasn't good at tennis, but that didn't really matter!
If I didn't have any homework, I would either head home to have dinner with my host family, or I would hang around with my friends on campus or around Makuhari (the neighborhood that our school was in). On days when I didn't have an afternoon class at IES Abroad, I almost always had plans in Tokyo that day. I'd usually be home by 10 p.m. (if not earlier) and I would talk with my host mom for a while before heading to bed.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
I never had "free time" in Tokyo; there was too much to do to allow myself any time to waste. On the weekends, I'd usually have plans from after class Friday morning until late Sunday night.
Since my friend and I didn't have class on Friday afternoons, we would almost always head to Tokyo right after Japanese class in the morning. Our personal favorite was window-shopping in Harajuku or getting lunch at a cute character-themed cafe. Friday nights usually consisted of some sort of get-together between the Japanese students and the international students. We would frequent local bars or hang out on the beach nearby campus. Fridays were never boring.
Saturdays and Sundays warranted a whole day to do whatever, so I often made plans to visit further away spots in Tokyo or attractions that required a whole day's visit, like Sanrio Puroland (that takes about two hours to get to from campus) or early-morning flea markets in Yoyogi Park. We also visited animal cafes on the weekend, life an owl cafe or a hedgehog cafe. If my friends and I had plans to stay out for the night, we'd often hang around Shibuya, Shinjuku, or Roppongi, since these neighborhoods had the best nightlife. Weekends were also a great time for sightseeing.
If my weekends weren't so jam-packed with things to do with my friends, I often hung out with my host family! They took me to Tokyo Disney Sea and we went to a cultural festival in Narita, where we made our own chopsticks and traditional Japanese handicrafts. Like I said, I never allowed myself any free time!
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
I chose the host family option over a dorm, and I'm so glad I did. My host family was so welcoming and I felt very at home with them. It was always nice to come home from class knowing I'd have a fun conversation over dinner; my two host sisters were so funny. I got really close to my host mom because we'd often spend nighttime after dinner chatting until we were too tired to continue.
I experienced so much and learned so much about Japanese culture through my homestay that I simply wouldn't have gotten a chance to see without the insider view of living in a Japanese family.
What is one thing every student should know before studying abroad in Tokyo?
The motto I lived by while abroad was, "If I say no to this experience, I'll never know what it was like and I'll have only myself to blame." At first, I tried going by the motto, "I've never been upset when I said yes to something," which I took to heart when I stayed out all night for the first time, even when I had to be up for my sisters' sports day at 7 a.m. If I had said no, I would've never learned from the experience. So in a way, I'm glad I said yes. I suppose my advice is to be open to all experiences that are offered to you during your time abroad; saying no will only lead you to wonder what could have been.
Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?
The most significant change I've noticed is that I've learned so much. Not just inside the classroom, but out. I learned about myself in a way that I wouldn't have if I hadn't been faced with some of the challenged I had while abroad. I learned about my own culture, as I got to view it from an outside perspective, and I certainly learned a great deal about Japanese culture, especially about things that you can't just read about in a book. I take these lessons with me, back to America, in order to continue to better myself and open my mind to new ways of thinking, and to educate others about the intricacies of Japanese culture that they may have never known otherwise.
Would you recommend IES Abroad’s Tokyo program to others? Why?
I would absolutely recommend IES Abroad Tokyo. There was never a time where I felt as though my program was lacking; they provided so many cultural excursions, field trips, networking opportunities, and so much more during my time with them. They made it easy to immerse myself in Tokyo’s college life, facilitating friendships through the e-pal program. They gave me experience in the real-life Japanese workplace through the field placement program. They gave me access to top names in Japanese business through my marketing professor's professional connections and the field trips he took us on.
I am always beaming about every aspect of my time with IES Abroad, and I can't wait for others to experience what I did.
Emily is a junior studying international politics and business at Penn State University. She was president of the university’s Schuylkill honors society and is an active member of the Schreyer Honors College. Emily even become part of the student council while abroad. Studying abroad in Tokyo was her first time out of the United States!