Across campus, large groups of Japanese foreign exchange students walk together speaking excitedly in their native languages. Dressed in Western gear, they walk slow, taking in the buildings surrounding them.
These students are part of a long standing exchange program meant to teach students how to speak English and experience American culture first-hand. Western has partnered with Asia University in Japan to host Japanese students on campus since 1979.
During the school year, there are two groups of Japanese exchange students who arrive on campus. Each group lives on the Western campus for five months and travels to places outside of Bellingham such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market on weekend trips with the program.
Akinobu Ibata, Mamoru Katagiri, Kazushi Nodaira and Kohtaro Iwabuchi all joined the study abroad program in Japan to experience what life in America is like for college students.
These students left home and came to America where they were met with new challenges and a completely different culture in a foreign land.
Everyday life, as well as government policies and classroom facilitation, seem unusual to these students. Cultural differences such as homeless aid programs and even new foods were a surprise.
The Asia University America Program allows students to study English, American culture, international communication and career/business exploration while also giving them the opportunity to make new friends and connections across continents.
Western is currently hosting 79 students from the AUAP program and several other Japanese exchange students who take university courses full-time.
Kana Sorimachi, an exchange student at Western, has wanted to learn how to speak English ever since she was little.
“I was interested in studying abroad since I was young,” Sorimachi said. “I decided to come to America to learn more English and I was in community college first, and then I transferred last quarter.”
Fellow Japanese students she met at Skagit Valley Community College kept telling her how great Western was, which compelled Sorimachi to attend a transfer fair on campus.
“I like the environment, it’s not too big, like compared to UW or WSU,” Sorimachi explained. “It’s just kind of a more friendly environment.”
In America, it is known as common courtesy to smile or nod at a passing stranger. However, in Japan, children are taught very young to not engage in contact with strangers at all.
“Most Americans are friendly,” Ibata said. “Most Japanese can’t talk to some stranger.”
Ibata said in Japanese classes only the teacher speaks and students are not given the opportunity to speak in class compared to how often students speak in America. Every class is held for 90 minutes and consists only of a lecture by the professor with no student input.
While studying in America, students find they are asked to participate in discussion and many professors will ask direct questions that they expect an answer to.
“Japan university is very formal,” Nodaira said. “But American university culture is freedom and fun.”
As a fellow exchange student from Japan, Sorimachi works with the AUAP students to make sure they are adjusting well to American life. Since it is not how they were always taught, the Japanese students struggle to express themselves and make their voices heard in a classroom environment.
“I sometimes volunteer in the student’s classes, and they don’t speak,” Sorimachi explained.
Sorimachi said as the students become more comfortable, they have been branching out and speaking to their teachers and peers.
“Some of them are getting active, they ask questions and say the answer of the questions,” Sorimachi said grinning.
Students who visit the Western campus are encouraged to spend time getting to know American friends and participate in activities all around campus.
“Everyone is free. Some will play the guitar and some sing,” Iwabuchi said. “Everyone is always busy.”
AUAP students have also expressed a love of the leisure and down time that being in an inclusive atmosphere provides. They have time to nap or relax and have more hours in the day to work on homework, instead of cramming it into a few hours between work and sleep.
“I sleep a lot,” Sorimachi said. “Maybe because I live in the dorm and it’s really close to school, so I have more time to study and finish homework early and sleep."
“School [in Japan] was kind of far, so [there was] a lot of travel time. I usually used a train to go to school and it’s usually crowded so it is hard to study on the train. I have to wait untill I go home.”
In Japan, many students were required to maintain jobs as well as school and home life, so relaxation was not always a main concern in their daily lives.
This experience has given them the opportunity to walk in the shoes of a typical American college student and compare the two worlds they have come to know.
“The students in this university are so kind,” Ibata said. “I feel comfortable, so I don’t miss my home.”
The current group of AUAP students arrived in late February and will stay until July as they continue to improve their English and learn more about the culture to bring home with them to Japan.