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Manga sparked IUPUI student’s interest in Japanese culture

by Ric Burrous

Kelcie Benson was born and raised in northeast Indiana, but a trip to her middle-school library in Whitley County opened up another pathway that intrigued her: exploring the world.

On that library trip, Benson discovered a type of Japanese comic called manga, and her curiosity led to doing research on that country’s culture and language. A flame had been lit.

When Benson enrolled at IUPUI, she chose to study global and international studies and Japanese studies. That path led her to Hakuoh University in Japan, where she immersed herself in all things Japanese in a long-term study-abroad opportunity.

"I have been fascinated with cultures for most of my life," Benson wrote during her stay overseas. Her encounter with manga made her "want to see if the cultural references were true. I found I also really liked the language."

She admits she grappled at times with the language, but Benson enjoyed her experiences and says she would love to return to Japan someday.

"I just wish my family and friends could have experienced it with me," she said. "The only culture shock I experienced was a bit of frustration with not being able to understand most of the language. But I remain optimistic; it just motivates me to want to learn more."

Kelcie Benson made friends from many nations on her trip.IUPUI student Kelcie Benson, in the middle of the back row, made friends with students from many nations during her year in Japan. It taught her to value the cultural lessons that all those relationships had to offer. | PHOTO COURTESY KELCIE BENSON

She learned a lot from the Japanese people around her, including students, but acknowledged that she also learned a lot from other international students who studied with her in Japan, from countries like Brazil and Thailand.

"I’ve learned a lot about those countries through other international students," Benson said. "It makes me want to discover more about myself."

Benson has loved life at IUPUI with its plentiful opportunities to broaden her horizons, from the Japanese Culture Club on campus to the annual International Fashion Show. "All of our events offer such great atmosphere and sense of community," she said.

Benson has become a strong advocate of the value of international experiences. "I have learned so much about day-to-day life in other countries, and it makes me realize how important it is for us to know people with other backgrounds," she said.

Simple things—like the impact of public transportation, Japanese emphasis on public cleanliness and order, even landscaping and gardening—made an impression.

"Other countries, like Japan, have different ways of doing things," Benson said. "It is interesting to see how those differences change perceptions."

A group gathering on a Japanese hillside was a chance to get to know new friends.A group outing to a Japanese hillside offered Benson, center, time to get to know her new friends better. | PHOTO COURTESY KELCIE BENSON

In her blog, she compared how high schools and colleges are perceived in Japan and in the U.S. "Here, college is the time when everything gets serious," she blogged. "In Japan, it’s the opposite of that. High school is the busiest time. Studying is important. College has a lot more freedom; professors give students more breathing room [there]."

That "breathing room" gave Benson more time to connect with others, to practice speaking Japanese and to make the most of her study-abroad opportunity.

Because of the different schedules of college life in Japan and the United States, Benson returned to Indiana in February, which left her unable to enroll in IUPUI classes this semester. But she is comfortable and has a plan. "I am still trying to get things done pertaining to my trip to Japan,” she said. “I’m also trying to get scholarship projects done. But I will return to school this fall."

To learn about Benson’s time in Japan, explore her blog.