Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne

Student Profiles

Jennifer McCaskill

Gakushuin Women's College, Japan

Exchange in Semestesr 1 and 2, 2009
Bachelor of Arts (Japanese) 

I have always believed that going on exchange is an important part of studying a foreign language  being able to use the language in everyday situations makes it feel so much more worthwhile. As I had been hoping to double major in Japanese and French, I originally wanted to choose a university where I could also continue studying advanced French. However since this was not possible I chose Gakushuin Women's College (GWC) because they offer subjects in many aspects of traditional culture. I also thought that I would feel more comfortable in a small, girls-only university. GWC is very small (about 1400 students) and has three departments: English Communication, International Communication and Japanese Culture. 

The campus is situated between Ikebukuro and Shinjuku in Tokyo, near the student district of Takadanobaba. It is part of the Gakushuin group of private schools which go from kindergarten right though to tertiary level. These schools were originally only for the children of nobility; because of this the schools are still considered to be very prestigious. The main entrance to the College is marked by huge red iron gates dating from 1877, followed by an avenue of cherry blossom trees leading into the grounds. The trees were just starting to bloom when we arrived at the beginning of the spring semester (our semester 1). Cherry blossoms are such a well known symbol of Japan that it was a beautiful welcome to the country. 

GWC only has about 20 exchange students at a time. We were split into three levels of Japanese classes which each had three 3-hour classes per week. There were only about six students in each class, so this gave us a great opportunity to participate in every lesson. Apart from Japanese language, all exchange students are able to take two subjects in traditional culture per semester. I took calligraphy and "yuusoku kojitsu" (traditional court kimono) classes in spring semester, and ikebana (flower arrangement) and "senshoku" (a type of fabric dying) in autumn semester. For all the other exchange students, this was enough subjects for them to take. The girls from England were on exchange as a hurdle requirement of their course, and the girls from Europe were largely unable to claim any credit for their time on exchange! And so I was the only one I knew who needed to take other subjects for credit. I took three subjects per semester in linguistics which were taught in English by American and Canadian professors, and in the Autumn semester I took beginners' Spanish (a bit of an experiment in learning a language taught in Japanese). None of these subjects had lectures; they were all classroom-based. Traditional Culture subjects were ninety-percent practical, and a lot of fun. Ikebana and "yuusoku kojitsu" had final essays, which were in Japanese and a bit of a challenge for my creative writing skills (can anyone tell me the difference between Japanese and Australian styles of flower arrangement?) 

GWC felt a lot like going back to high school, probably due to the small campus and the way the day was broken up  five 90 minute periods marked by a bell, and everyone had the same lunchtime  as well as how most subjects were taught in a classroom. 

Although I was already aware of the differences in students' attitudes towards university in Australia and Japan, it was still a bit of a surprise to actually experience them. In Japan it's hard to get into university, but easy to pass; in Australia it's comparatively easy to get in, but harder to pass. Whilst Japanese people have a reputation of being very hard working, this doesn't seem to apply once they've gotten into a university. What university they attended plays a big role in getting a job, and final-year students miss a lot of classes as they are off "job hunting". In one of my linguistics subjects, for which the assessment was one essay per semester, plus one over the summer holidays (August-September), the teacher was still trying to chase up summer essays in December. The students would often answer that they had forgotten, or were about to start, and there were no penalties for lateness. 

Most of the exchange students stayed at GWC's dorm, however as there was not enough space for all the students, a few of us stayed in different locations. I stayed in a building called Azalea House, which was about 15 minutes by train from the campus. There was one other exchange student from GWC there with me. She was from Estonia and we became close friends very quickly, as we arrived on the same day and didn't know anyone else. Azalea House was home to about 70 or 80 exchange students, who mostly attended Sophia University or Gakushuin University (the co-ed, multi-faculty version of GWC). Rooms were single one room (~16m2 I believe) with a bed, desk, wardrobe and 'kitchenette' (sink, stove and mini-fridge) and a tiny, plastic bathroom which reminded me of an airplane. It was about 10 minutes walk to the train station and supermarket, and train travel is so convenient in Tokyo that it was easy to go just about anywhere. The owner of Azalea House organised welcome parties for new students each semester, where there was a lot of sushi, beer and sake along with musical performances like shamisen. 

The staff members at the Exchange Student Centre were very helpful with everything from enrolments to finding the nearest 100 yen shop. They also organised a 'welcome tea party' at the beginning of each semester, which was an opportunity to meet local students, and also farewell parties at the end of each semester. The one in July was combined with Tanabata, a summer festival where people write wishes on pieces of paper and tie them to a bamboo branch. We were all able to wear yukata (summer kimono) which had been loaned by local students. The students who were returning home each semester had to give short speeches, which was petrifying! The Exchange Student Centre also helped me find tutoring work I tutored a seventy-something Japanese man in French once a week, which probably helped my Japanese more than his French, but it was pretty fun and he was very nice. They also organised several outings during the year we got to see performances of kabuki and noh (types of theatre) and had a daytrip to Shizuoka prefecture where we visited temples, went on a cruise around the bay and were set loose on an all-you-can-eat strawberry farm.

At GWC I made friends with local students in various ways. Firstly, I was paired up with a 'language partner' with whom I could practice Japanese and in turn, help her with her English. She had a large group of friends who I sat with most lunchtimes and who I was sad to leave at the end of the year. I also made several close friends through tea ceremony club, and a club called International Team, which held parties for events like Halloween and Christmas. Through the International Team I tried to set up pen pals with Melbourne University's Japanese Club, which was semi-successful. It was mostly another lesson in how difficult it can be to organise people. 

In August I was lucky enough to be selected to participate in an event called Japan Tent, a free summer camp for 300 exchange students from all over Japan, which takes place in Kanazawa, on the main island's west coast (and thankfully doesn't involve tents). For the first four nights the 300 students were divided between 16 towns in the prefecture of Ishigawa (Kanazawa is the capital of the prefecture). We stayed in homestays, with two students per family. I was in a town called Wajima, where we experienced zen meditation in a temple, making our own soba noodles from scratch, and engraving 'wajima-nuri', a type of lacquer ware which is very famous in Japan. Our host family also took us sightseeing around the area, and we went to a taiko (drum) practise session where we got to try out drumming ourselves. After that we all moved to home stays in Kanazawa. Our time in Kanazawa was mostly devoted to sightseeing. My host mother took us to Ninja Temple (where the hidden staircases outnumber rooms, but there were never any real ninjas), Shima Geisha House, which is now a museum, and a shop down a tiny alleyway where they make soy sauce soft serve ice cream (tastier than you think!) Japan Tent is a really amazing program, so if you go to Japan I really urge you to participate!! 

Apart from camp, I travelled outside the Tokyo area on four occasions. In June I went to Kyoto for two nights with an exchange student from England, which was a lot of fun and pretty full-on sightseeing. My favourite place in Kyoto is Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is a little out of the city but is famous for having many kilometres of closely spaced bright red 'torii' gates, which make tunnels  through the forest. We also visited a studio where you are dressed as a geisha (make-up, wig and all) and get photos taken. In September my boyfriend stayed with me for three weeks, and we travelled for ten days to Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima and Himeji. In the five months before he arrived, I folded 1000 paper cranes which I took to the peace memorial on our trip. Visiting Miyajima Island (off Hiroshima) was also amazing, as we were trailed by wild deer that wanted our ice cream and we saw a traditional Japanese wedding in Itsukushima Shrine (where the famous 'floating' torii gate is). We also took an overnight trip to Nikko, about three hours by train from Tokyo, where there are two massive temple complexes devoted to the first and third shoguns of the Tokugawa Shogunate (in the 1600s); and spent our anniversary at Tokyo Disneyland. At Christmas my parents and sister came over and travelled for a week without me; I met up with them in Kanazawa where my host mother from camp took us around for half a day, and we travelled through Takayama and Hakone on the way back to Tokyo for another week. Then in February I flew to Sapporo in Hokkaido with two Japanese friends to see the annual Snow Festival, which features giant ice sculptures. All in all, Tokyo is a really good place to go on exchange as there are so many things to see and do in Tokyo itself, and it's a convenient base for travel throughout Japan. 

Finally, the financial side. I think my exchange cost me around $24 000 for eleven months, although it was high because of my accommodation and because I travelled a lot. Also, the GFC happened about six months before I left, and so my estimated costs almost doubled. I got a Language Scholarship from Melbourne University and also a grant from the Walter Mangold Trust Fund, which were both a big help with living costs and gave me more opportunity to travel. Both of these are really easy to apply for, so I encourage everyone planning on going on a language exchange to apply for them. GWC gave me a scholarship as well, along with a housing stipend each month which paid most of my rent. Even so, I still needed a loan from my parents in the last couple of months. So like everyone always says, you need to make sure you have plenty of money before you go, plus a backup plan.

Going on exchange is such a thrilling and terrifying experience. I was so busy being excited about going that it didn't hit me until I was alone in a room on the other side of the world what exactly I was facing for the next eleven months. I wasn't prepared for how homesick I would feel at that point, but to be honest, I don't think it's something that you can prepare yourself for. There were also the times when after a long day at uni, all you want to do is go home and flop on the bed but you have to go to the supermarket and go home and cook dinner because there's no one else to do it for you. Apart from the obvious language benefits, and the enormous amounts of fun and wonder, exchange is a big lesson in going it alone without relying on others. Exchange throws you in at the deep end and I think that it definitely helped me to become a more confident and independent person.

So what are you waiting for? Start saving and get your application in, cos you're in for the experience of a lifetime!


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