Maybe it was the beautiful campus. Or that it was nestled in a small town rather than a huge metropolis. Perhaps it was because it was a public university with a strong emphasis on the liberal arts.
Whatever the reason, the Japanese school reminded Kevin Hockmuth ’00 of his beloved alma mater, almost 7,000 miles away.
Three Mary Washington students will soon make that same Japanese university their home – temporarily – as UMW embarks on a bilateral exchange program with Akita International University (AIU). Class of 2020 students Tess Darroch, Rahi Taylor and Kaitlin Viloria will spend the fall 2019 semester at AIU. In addition, a Japanese student will spend the year at Mary Washington. UMW’s first exchange program with Japan marks the beginning of a blossoming new partnership to bring Japanese culture to Mary Washington.
Darroch hopes to become immersed in the country’s dialect. “I’ve wanted to study Japanese for a long time,” said the international affairs major, who has a concentration in Asian politics. “It is one of the fastest-paced languages in the world and has a certain allure in its flow and smoothness.”
Hockmuth is eager to help facilitate this new relationship and recently returned to UMW to meet with Darroch and the other students participating in the program. He had once suggested to a colleague that UMW would be an ideal partner school for AIU, where he is an assistant professor of political science and Korean studies.
“There is something special about small liberal arts schools like UMW and the kind of bonds they forge and the community feeling they create,” Hockmuth said. “I feel fortunate to have landed in such an environment at AIU.”
Center for International Education Director Jose Sainz and College of Arts and Science Dean Keith Mellinger traveled to Japan over spring break to formalize the study abroad agreement and explore opportunities to further strengthen the partnership. They were joined by Steve Rabson, an adjunct instructor who has been instrumental in bringing Japanese studies to UMW.
“This program is yet another opportunity for UMW to graduate students who are global citizens,” Sainz said. “It says a lot about the caliber of students who are willing to spend a semester in a foreign culture where they haven’t studied the language formally, as we do not yet offer Japanese language courses at UMW.”
The study abroad program is just one component of this flourishing relationship with Japan. UMW received two grants in 2014 and 2016 from the Japan Foundation, which promotes Japanese culture in the United States. Rabson applied for the grants, totaling over $38,000, to fund Japanese literature, film and culture courses; presentations from visiting lecturers and artists; and new library books.
“This partnership is a vital component in our mission to enhance global understanding and multiculturalism,” said Rabson, whose passion for Japanese culture dates back to when he was stationed in Okinawa as a U.S. Army draftee during the Vietnam War.
When planning presentations, Rabson has drawn upon the contacts he made with Japanese scholars and artists during his three decades teaching at Brown University. He said there is strong interest in Japanese studies at UMW, as evidenced by high enrollment in current courses and activities.
Many of these activities are planned by a Japanese outreach coordinator, Mina Uehara, who is visiting UMW for two years as part of an initiative sponsored by the Japan Foundation. Uehara teaches a Japanese cinema, literature and anime course with Rabson. She has also given presentations on language, calligraphy, origami and sushi-making, and performed traditional music on a sanshin – a plucked string instrument – at UMW and in local elementary schools, as well as at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
Japan Foundation program director Takeshi Yoshida, who accompanied Rabson, Sainz and Mellinger in their travels, said the partnership aligns with President Troy Paino’s strategic vision of “immersing UMW students in applied, impactful learning experiences.”
While AIU classes are taught in English, the students who are going to Japan next fall cited learning the language as their primary motivation for participating in the program.
Rahi Taylor had already learned some Japanese through a Governor’s School program, but the international affairs major has been brushing up through the Japanese conversation hours that Uehara leads at UMW. He plans to join the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program after graduation, in which he’ll work as an English teacher in Japan.
Psychology major Kaitlin Viloria grew up surrounded by Japanese culture without even realizing it. She spent her childhood singing karaoke, reading manga, watching anime and cheering for her brother at karate meets.
“I hope to come away with knowledge I could only attain in the country itself,” Viloria said. “I want to experience the hidden gems that foreigners and casual travelers wouldn’t know about, see the real Japan beneath its popular culture and common-knowledge history, and get close to fluency in Japanese.”