Two Japanese students stood onstage in the Cavanaugh Hall basement theatre. One was upset, ready to drop out of college. The other exuberant in her enthusiasm for school, hopping around the stage and grasping her colleague in giant bear hugs as she encouraged her friend to rethink her decision.
It’s wasn’t a situation either student realistically contemplated. Below them sat 19 classmates and an assortment of professors and friends who watched the drama unfold. The students were acting out a skit they were assigned in class—a skit that caused them a bit of culture shock. In Japan, it’s not normal for someone to drop out of school.
The students were visitors from Hakuoh University, a private school in Oyama, Japan. For nearly fourteen years, Hakuoh University students have visited the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI for ten days of immersed training in the English language and culture. On this very day they were wrapping up their visit. After the class presented their sketches consisting of various social situations, they received certificates, had a pizza and sushi party, and then traveled to North Central High School on the northside of Indianapolis to meet with high school students who are studying or are interested in Japan.
Jordan Gusich, Senior Assistant Director for Academic Affairs in the Program for Intensive English (PIE), spent the two weeks guiding the students through class and Indianapolis. Gusich received his MA in English with a concentration on teaching English as a second language (TESOL) from IUPUI and he found his way back to the university several years later when the School of Liberal Arts began PIE in 2014. Meanwhile, Professor Ulla Connor, Director of the International Center for Intercultural Communication, was overseeing intensive language programs for visiting students. As PIE developed, Connor felt it was time to merge her work with the PIE and so worked with Professor Thom Upton, Founding Director of the PIE, and Gusich to transition the running of the Hakuoh University-IUPUI language program to them.
During their time in Indianapolis the students visited Newfields, various local restaurants, Bankers Life Fieldhouse where they received a tour of the arena and played some basketball, and saw an Indianapolis Indians baseball game. They also completed a grocery store scavenger hunt, experienced an IUPUI fire drill (an exciting occurrence for the students), and went to Warren Central High School where they met with students, performed a traditional Japanese dance, and did origami.
“It’s a cultural exchange,” Gusich said of the high school visits. “The high school students are studying Japanese and they are extremely excited about all things Japan. It’s a time for them to meet Japanese students. It’s a time for the Hakuoh students to experience an American high school.”
During the trip, students paired up and stayed with host families. Kyle McClain, an IUPUI alum, was one of the first students to visit Hakuoh while studying Japanese. He now works for Hakuoh university and returns to IUPUI each fall with the students as a chaperone and translator, helping the students navigate their new surroundings.
“You have 21 students. For many, it was their first opportunity to travel abroad,” Gusich said. “Oyama is a small region. Just making the decision to study abroad and stepping on that plane is an incredible experience for them.”
Gusich notes that building international relationships is part of IUPUI’s mission, and the partnership that has grown between Hakuoh University and the School of Liberal Arts is a realization of the mission’s goals. Not only is the experience positive for the Japanese students, but their interaction with IUPUI’s own students opens their American peers up to the potential of international study. This partnership is now growing into the community, as witnessed by the students’ visits to both North Central and Warren Central High Schools, visits that were sponsored by the Japan-American Society of Indiana with the goal of helping to foster friendships between students in Indiana and Japan.
“It plants a seed that there is a world out there and it’s worth exploring,” Gusich said. “It’s ok to get out of your comfort zone and try some new things in a different place, a different culture.”
“For a lot of these students its life changing. It’s IUPUI. It’s Indianapolis. It’s the families who take them in,” he said. “It’s something they will remember for a very long time.”