Saturday, November 28, 2020

Connecting globally in a time of pandemic

by Lindsey Roosa
| November 15, 2020 12:00 AM

Mike Mansfield of Montana was a Marine, a miner and a professor even before he began his political career. He served as Senate Majority Leader, and later as Ambassador to Japan from 1977 to 1988, placing high value on integrity and ethics throughout his career. Even today, his influence can be seen in the strong connection between Montana and Japan. As a Japanese and political science double-major at the University of Montana, I have had the opportunity to witness this connection firsthand. 

Now is a time when we are made acutely aware of how interconnected the world is, apparent both in the rapid spread of COVID-19, but also in the absence of travel. I had been studying abroad in Tokyo during the fall semester of 2019. Unfortunately, the virus cut my time abroad short, as it did for many students, and I was unable to stay for the following spring semester. As someone focused on international relations and aiming to spend as much time in Japan as possible to improve my language skills, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me and my peers to find creative solutions to remain connected to our friends abroad and further our internationally focused studies in a mobility-restricted world. The UM Mansfield Center Tohoku exchange program was a way to do just that.  

Through the Tohoku exchange program, students from Tohoku University in Japan were able to participate in a virtual exchange program at the University of Montana. The program included English lessons, conversations with local “homestay” families, and a language exchange with UM students in the Japanese department — all conducted via Zoom. Despite not being able to come to Montana physically, the Japanese students were able to learn about American culture and families, as well as practice their English. Those of us in Montana also had the chance to learn more about Japan. I was involved in the program as a language exchange partner, helping Japanese students practice their English, while simultaneously improving my own Japanese. From only one short meeting, I learned about proverbs and idioms in Japanese, discussed how the Japanese language is used in formal situations as compared to English, discussed job-hunting in Japan versus America, and learned about what life is like in Sendai, Japan (where Tohoku University is located).

The Tohoku exchange program inspired me to continue finding ways to connect with people in Japan, even if I couldn’t be there myself. This semester, I started a Japanese-English Conversation Club conducted over Zoom twice a week. Many of the participants are students who had originally taken part in the Tohoku exchange. The club is similar to the Tohoku exchange program in that it allows us a chance to improve our language skills and share one another’s cultures. For students who are unable to study abroad, it gives them an opportunity to connect with people in their country of interest, who hopefully they will get to meet in person one day.  

I believe that programs of connection, like the Tohoku exchange program, help nurture the strong bond that people like Mike Mansfield were integral in building between Japan and the United States. Expanding the opportunity to connect beyond traditional in-person exchanges, online options allow these connections to grow when travel is not possible. A larger number of individuals are afforded the chance to interact with the world around them and build relationships with others, near and far. I am so grateful to have participated in this program.

—Lindsey Roosa is a junior at the University of Montana.