Doing all I can do, even if I can’t go overseas


Like every college student, Hiroki Konno wants to visit many places and see things he can only see now. He entered our Department of French Literature with the overall goal of participating in international exchange, and he became eagerly active overseas through his participation in international volunteer groups. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Here he tells us how he changed his thinking after becoming unable to engage in such activities while living through his time as a college student, a precious part of his life that cannot be postponed.

Hiroki Konno Third-year student, Department of French Literature, Faculty of Letters Hiroki Konno became interested in international exchange after experiencing homestay in Adelaide, and so entered the Department of French Literature in our Faculty of Letters. To gain more overseas experience after starting university, he became a leader in the international volunteer group Habitat (Habitat for Humanity) MGU. He also volunteers with “Goat Club,” an extension of the Yokohama Campus Project that supports use of goats as a way of clearing weeds. His hobbies include the piano, which he has played since he was six years old, online games with his friends, and photography. Recently he enjoys photographing Mt. Fuji when he can see it from our Yokohama campus.

I want to learn words I can use in international society!

When I was in high school, I spent one spring break on a homestay in Adelaide, Australia. I had always been interested in international exchange, and by interacting with people from all over the world I’d made many friends and had conversations with Mexican friends in Spanish. I still clearly remember all the new discoveries I made and being amazed at how big the world is.

I decided to major in French because I wanted to learn words I can use in international society. As everyone knows, English has become the global lingua franca, but French has long been the language of royalty and the nobility, particularly in Europe, and it remains an important language in many aspects of international society. I also decided on this major upon entering college as an opportunity to try something new, in addition to a sense of curiosity.

The Department of French Literature at Meiji Gakuin teaches not only French, but also a wide variety of fields, from culture and history to social issues. Among those I was particularly interested in language, but in Professor Izumi Tahara’s seminar I’ve been learning about the diversity of the French language in social, geographic, and international spaces. By viewing French in the totality of its various aspects, I am studying the slang and youth language used in social media, as well as how French dialects are spoken in actual societies and regions.

I have of course improved my conversational abilities, but above all I feel that through reading comprehension and discussions I have acquired an ability to think logically. The department itself is small, decreasing the distance between its faculty and students and making it a very nice environment that facilitates communication.

Constructing buildings in Fiji

One other thing I definitely wanted to accomplish while in college was participating in overseas activities, and I joined the Habitat (Habitat for Humanity) MGU group with that strong desire. This is a volunteer group that helps to construct houses overseas, primarily in Asia. I wasn’t originally very interested in volunteer work, mainly considering it a means for going overseas, but experiencing it made me realize how much I loved it. Now, it has become one of the central aspects of my student life.

I entered college in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, so I was able to go to Fiji in the summer of my first year, part of a group of twelve students. Finally, I was able to participate in the kind of overseas activity I’d been looking forward to! Fiji is generally considered to be a place rich in nature and tourism resources, but it is also a country with many issues related to living environments, with many areas just ten minutes by car from the airport that still don’t have electricity. I was surprised when I saw this, but I truly enjoyed the days I spent conversing with local residents while working to help construct buildings.

We performed construction activities with the help of local carpenters. The building we were working on was a public toilet, which involved many tasks such as pouring concrete to create a foundation, digging holes to bury tanks, painting walls, and nailing corrugated iron. This was mostly manual work, with very few machines involved. We were also working long days under the hot sun, in an unfamiliar country, so we had to be careful to watch after our health. But even so, after gradually getting to know new people in a place where I was unfamiliar with both the language and the culture, seeing the smiles of the children, and most important of all seeing the happiness that our hard work brought to the people there, I could no longer think of that experience as just “a means for going overseas.”

Knowing that I still had some time left as a college student, I greatly hoped to again have the chance to go overseas and work for others, and I was sure I could make that dream a reality.

Connections among equals reconfirmed through the COVID-19 pandemic

In February 2020, the trip to Cambodia I had planned to go on during my spring vacation was suddenly cancelled, just two days before we were scheduled to leave. I was of course disappointed, and the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to any future overseas activities. That is around the time I was chosen as the leader of Habitat MGU. This was a group formed by students with a strong interest in going overseas, so the group morale plummeted. We held online meetings each week, but attendance was poor. We had lost our objective, and our daily lives had been disrupted, inhibiting any motivation for engagement. I’m sure many members became unsure what was even the point of belonging to the group.

At that time, we received a great deal of support from students with similar concerns at other universities. Habitat for Humanity (HFH) Japan has chapters at several other Japanese universities. Our group had been in contact with others from before the pandemic, so we were able to share our worries with others who felt the same.

Looking for something we could do together, we started online study groups and exchanges. Working with HFH leaders at Aoyama Gakuin University and Sophia University, we planned and implemented discussion meetings and presentations on social issues related to the pandemic. The pandemic was preventing us from meeting even people we were close with, and communication was largely limited to only a handful of people, so creating an environment that allowed exchange with students from other colleges was an invaluable, stimulating experience.

Other activities we engaged in within Habitat MGU included online presentations regarding living situations around the world, including information related to local history and climate. We also divided our thirty or so members into “families,” each with four to five students of various ages and majors, proposing ways of creating environments in which small groups can casually converse. I myself have never been very comfortable in large groups, or communicating directly with others. Interacting with others online creates difficulties related to how to communicate and at what timing. By utilizing our own experience and having more activities involving small groups, we created new forms of communication one-by-one.

Not everything went smoothly at first. I tend to keep my worries to myself, so at first I even found it difficult to consult with other group members, but with the support of the members I was representing, I gradually became more active. It was around this time that I truly realized I was growing and changing.

What I could do without going overseas

Regardless of the situation you find yourself in, even if that’s a pandemic, I believe it is important to do what you can with what you have, rather than complain about what you cannot do.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly altered how we communicate online. While part of that is increased convenience, there are also harmful effects. The question is thus where we go from here. We’re living in a time of few precedents, so we’re tasked with creating examples as pioneers for the online era.

Those who entered college after me never got to go overseas at all. There are many things I’m worried about, including how to pass on our activities to the next generation of members, but I’m getting a lot of help and advice from my seniors and others working with me. We’re still connected, even if we cannot meet face-to-face. It is thanks to them that I’ve grown to something beyond the weak, shy person I was. By interacting and gaining experience with many people, I have definitely felt growth in my compassion for others and how I communicate with them.

We are still in a time of uncertainty, but there’s still another year and a half left in my time at university. In the future I hope to utilize the linguistic ability and experience as an international volunteer I acquired in college to engage in work that will build bridges between Japan and other countries.