The importance of relying on others: The study abroad life I’d longed for, and what I learned from the pandemic

Sometimes we find ourselves in extraordinary situations over which we have no control. But perhaps it is exactly times like these in which our everyday attitudes and behaviors are tested, allowing many opportunities for learning new things. Yukiko Uchikawa was studying in the US, enjoying the study abroad experience she’d looked forward to for so long, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In this article, she describes her experiences and feelings amidst this global-scale problem.

Yukiko Uchikawa Fourth-year student in the Business Administration Department, Faculty of Economics Ms. Uchikawa entered the Business Administration Department with the aim of studies that will be beneficial for both international exchange and society. She has been an active participant in campus activities since her first year, joining the Student Public Relations Committee, the Volunteer Center’s “Do for Smile @ East Japan” project, and the Open Campus staff, as well as leading the “1 Day for Others” project. She participated in a short-term study abroad program during summer holidays of her second year, and went to Hope College in Michigan, US in her third year (August 2019) for long-term study abroad. Her interests include reading, particularly mysteries, and says her favorite place on campus is the library.

Studying abroad was my biggest goal for college life

I’ve been interested in international exchange since I was in high school, and I entered university thinking about study abroad. I challenged myself in various ways to broaden my horizons. I did my best to broaden myself by connecting my Business Administration major with volunteerism and opportunities for understanding others, writing for the university’s public relations magazine, and serving as a buddy for study-abroad students coming to MGU. So I took on a variety of challenges, but the entire time I knew I wanted to study abroad.

During summer vacation of my second year, I visited Hope College for a short-term study abroad program. From how comfortable the campus and the town felt, from how welcoming the faculty and students were, and from the school’s overall atmosphere of serious study, I knew this was the place for me. I was so sure, in fact, that I returned to Japan telling the friends and staff I’d met there I would definitely be back in a year. That summer provided me with motivation for pursuing a long-term study abroad experience.

One year later, after a lot of study to obtain the necessary language scores and taking courses while preparing for study abroad, I finally started my life as an international student. I was accepted at Hope College, my number one choice, allowing me to reunite with friends and faculty there. When I took a German class there the teaching style focused on speaking ability, making me realize how different the approach to language learning is between Japan and the US. My other classes too assigned a huge amount of work, and keeping up with it all was really hard, but with the advice and support of my professors, classmates, and roommate, I was somehow able to keep up. The school offered a Japanese major, and by serving as a class assistant I was able to experience teaching my native language in English. Outside of class, I was able to commiserate with my roommate regarding how hard it is to learn a new language. Every day was full of new experiences, including living in a dormitory, activities at the Japanese Club, and interacting with my host family.

At first, it seemed like a faraway problem, but…

― In February 2020, Ms. Uchikawa was half a year into her study abroad experience. That was about the time when the COVID-19 pandemic started to really affect the United States. At first it seemed like a problem that was limited to faraway countries, but in almost no time it had spread throughout the US, including Hope College.

I saw on the news that COVID-19 had become a big problem in Japan and other Asian countries. Infections started appearing in large US cities too, so everyone was taking precautions like avoiding large groups and not travelling to other states, but to be honest I never thought things in the US would change so quickly. After a period of worry and anxiousness, around mid-March all of our classes went online, and many students left the dormitories to return home. Only study abroad students remained in the dorms, which was pretty lonely, and then even we were told we’d have to vacate. I was left wondering what I would do, but then my host family invited me to their home.

I kept in touch with friends who were doing study abroad in other countries, and one after one they told me they’d decided to return to Japan. I started feeling a sense of crisis about the situation in the United States and I wasn’t sure how much longer I had before the borders closed, so in the end I decided to return too. In normal times I would have spent the remainder of my study abroad going out with friends and roommate, and I’d been looking forward to deepening my relationships with other people, so the decision to return home was really painful, and it took a long time to recover from my disappointment.

It’s not all bad: The importance of relying on others

I’ll never forget how my host family stayed by my side, even when I was unable to directly tell my friends goodbye. They helped me like they were my real family when talking about when and how I would get home, treating me very kindly. To keep me from feeling sad, they said they’d do everything I wanted, taking me to nearby restaurants and parks, or spending the whole day with me watching movies, doing puzzles, and playing with their cats. Their number one priority was ensuring I returned home with good memories. I’m sure everyone in my host family had their own worries about what was going on, but even so they said they considered me to be like their own daughter, and every time I think of them, I’m filled with gratitude for how warmly they supported me.

In that way, my study abroad experience taught me the importance of relying on others. Before, I had always considered myself as capable of solving any problem myself. I thought I could always make things work out however I wanted them to, and I’d convinced myself I was right about that. But by being faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized the necessity of honestly conveying my feelings and trusting and relying on others.

At some point in our lives, we will all find ourselves in situations that we cannot resolve on our own. At times like that, by relying on others around us, we can find new solutions, tackle problems more efficiently, and discover new feeling within ourselves. By reflecting on my study abroad experience, I realize the many ways in which I have relied on and been supported by others around me.

Even when things don’t go as planned…

I am now at a turning point in my life, and it seems like more times than not, things haven’t gone as I’d planned. After I got into university, I set study abroad as my biggest goal for my time there, and with that in mind I spent a lot of time studying and preparing. Despite finally achieving that dream, however, I found myself faced with a global pandemic that ended my plans before they could be completed.

Even so, I do not consider my experience to have been a negative one. Through the three years I spent preparing to study overseas, I was able to prove to myself that I was able to set a large goal and achieve it, providing me with a lot of self-confidence. Furthermore, not being able to complete my study abroad stay made me eager to take on some other challenge. I will hold on to my newfound confidence and work on my new goals, even after I graduate from university.

I also hope I can someday revisit Hope College, to reunite with friends, faculty, and staff there.