Whirlwind trip to Japan builds friendships, cross-cultural connections for 23 students
Nine days goes pretty fast – just ask the University of Missouri–St. Louis students who flew to Japan for a jam-packed week there earlier this year. But a relatively short period of time can also make a lasting impression, as it did in this case.
It was a return trip for a few of the students, including senior Japanese major Kristy Gammill, whose initial experience in Japan occurred before she began studying the language. For Kristin Wyninegar, a now-graduated communication major, it was her first opportunity to travel internationally – and her second trip ever on an airplane.
For both of them, selected alongside 21 fellow UMSL students to participate in the Japan Foundation’s Kakehashi Project this past March, the experience is still underway, in a sense. And that’s exactly the sort of outcome the Kakehashi Project, which aims to deepen mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S., seeks for students of both countries.
Wyninegar sees useful connections between her own feeling, in Japan, of being outside her comfort zone and the experience of international college students and others on her home campus. Gammill is now looking into an unexpected area of interest as she takes steps to work in Japan after she graduates from UMSL this fall.
“I realized that Japan-U.S. relations are so important and that the countries really complement one another in good ways,” Gammill says of her lessons from the Kakehashi trip. “And it makes me want to really reach out and have a more active role in those relations.”
Together with several other Japanese majors as well as UMSL students in fields ranging from graphic design to criminology, Gammill first explored Tokyo, the nation’s capital. Under the guidance of UMSL faculty member Beth Huebner and Associate Dean Beth Eckelkamp, the group visited shrines, traversed the electronics district and saw many sights. They also traveled to Fukuoka, a city located on Japan’s southernmost major island, to interact with Japanese university students, stay with families, experience Noh theater and further explore the culture.
“We got to meet the only female Kyogen performer, and she taught us special moves,” Wyninegar recalls. Wyninegar was also impressed by the country’s food, the cleanliness and, quite specifically, the toilets – many of which have heated seats.
“It’s just a button you push,” she adds. “It doesn’t have to be heated.”
At a Japanese university, the UMSL crew attended lectures on the history of U.S.-Japan relations and spent time with Japanese peers.
“We showed them the UMSL YMCA song, and they loved it,” Wyninegar says. “And that was one of my favorite parts, meeting the students there. They were happy to see us, and we were happy to see them.”
Students received individual tours of a campus one day, and Gammill was delighted to be paired with a peer tour guide who did not speak English. She further sharpened her language skills during a two-day homestay, where she served as an informal translator between the family and the other UMSL student they were hosting.
“I felt like we had so much in common,” Gammill says of the time with Japanese people during the trip. “ It was especially touching for me to hear them describe – whether they were government officials or host families or professors – how they felt about America. I mean, of course there are people who harbor hostilities towards the U.S. and Japan. But the dominant opinion was that, wow, we have a really good relationship with this country. And they want to continue attracting Americans and teach people English, teach them about American culture. So that was really cool.”
Wyninegar notes that it was UMSL’s first time participating in the Kakehashi Project, something that faculty member Laura Miller, the Eiichi Shibusawa-Seigo Arai Endowed Professor of Japanese Studies, has championed. Fully funded and free to the student participants, approximately 100 UMSL students applied last fall, with about 40 selected for interviews before 23 were chosen for the trip.
“I’m so glad that UMSL got to participate,” Gammill says. “It was really nice to see us not only being on the same trip as prestigious schools like the University of Denver but also being just as involved and performing just as well.”
This fall, as she wraps up her bachelor’s degree at UMSL, Gammill intends to apply to the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, a competitive employment opportunity that places U.S. citizens in schools and local government roles somewhere in Japan. She’d originally been thinking she’d teach English in an elementary school, but while in Japan this spring she met a current JET participant who is working in community relations.
“It’s a much more intensive role within JET, and after this program and learning about the position and seeing how important it is, I’m really determined to get that position,” Gammill says.
Another UMSL student is applying her experience on the trip at a local grocery store, Wyninegar notes.
“We were challenged to bring the experience back, and she works at Schnucks, so she’ll be taking some different Japanese flavors and foods to Schnucks corporate, and we’re just going to try and keep reaching out to the community,” Wyninegar says. “I’ve been to different leadership conferences and such, and you get all of this excitement, and then you come back but nothing really happens. So I think it’s really great that we’re still working on it.”
Both Gammill and Wyninegar came away from the trip amazed at the hospitality they experienced in Japan as foreigners and tourists. Looking back on two separate incidents in restaurants, where they and other UMSL students were struggling to place accurate orders and pay, the two of them share a laugh. One might understandably grow frustrated with the failures of communication, Gammill adds, but the Japanese servers were only patient and kind.
The interactions with fellow UMSL community members were also wonderful, she says, pointing out that because of all their different majors and the sheer size of the university, there were unfamiliar faces at the start of the trip back in March.
“I would have never really interacted with them, but now we’re ‘tomodachis,’” Gammill says with a smile. “We’re friends.”
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