Peer Review

Intensive Study Abroad for First-Generation College Students

I watch Rubi Garcia, a rising sophomore at the University of Southern California (USC), expertly negotiate a conversation with three Japanese students at a reception in Nagoya, Japan, even though she speaks only a few words of Japanese and these students speak little English. Rubi is nearing the end of her first trip outside of the United States, part of a class I teach on America culture in Japan and Japanese culture in the United States. At the beginning of this study abroad intensive course, I didn’t imagine that Rubi or her peers could successfully engage in this international dialogue, given their limited language skills. Rubi is a first-generation college student from the Watts area of Los Angeles, and she has travelled with twelve other students, freshmen to seniors, who are all the first in their families to attend college. These students are Norman Topping Scholars at USC, a fellowship program that identifies low-income students who have overcome major obstacles to attend college. These thirteen undergraduates have travelled to Japan with the student service professionals that run the program, along with a team of two PhD students and a working professional I have assembled to provide them a first-rate educational experience.

Developing an Intensive Study Abroad Course

Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
  • Meaningful Interaction with Faculty and Peers

As a faculty member dedicated to working with underrepresented minority and low-income students, and a dean whose responsibilities include ensuring that diverse students take full advantage of their college educations, I have been overjoyed by the chance to develop this intensive study abroad course. It is currently a three-and-one-half week “Maymester” course that takes place immediately after commencement and before our regular summer sessions. This allows our students to enroll in this four-unit course as part of their regular spring curriculum, taking advantage of their respective financial aid packages, while also being supported in their travel by the exceptional funding of the Norman Topping Program and research support from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.

This is the second Topping student group that has gone to Japan under the auspices of this course. I initially developed the course with Christina Yokoyama, director of the Norman Topping Program, in academic year 2009–10, after we realized that first-generation college students were among the least likely USC students to participate in traditional study abroad programs. Although the university was proud of producing “global leaders and citizens” among its undergraduates, very few students from our first-generation college population—which accounts for 16 percent of our student body—pursue traditional study abroad opportunities. The Topping Scholars were perfect partners to create a new cohort of global leaders, since the scholarship program consisted almost exclusively of first-generation college students, many of whom were already campus leaders committed to community involvement. What was needed was a course dedicated to their particular needs and interests.

We chose Japan as a site to study because it was a relatively safe environment for a first trip abroad, as well as a non-Western culture that had deep connections to our region of southern California. I wanted to make sure that students could see Japan in our local culture, while also experiencing how features of US society and history made their way across the Pacific to Japan. Unlike study abroad programs made for students familiar with international travel and cosmopolitan culture, this program would make global culture itself part of the investigation, trying to show how Japan and the United States were interrelated societies that had made connections despite differences in race, class, and culture over time. Those transnational connections included a history of war and violence, corporate relationships, and the movement of people and culture back and forth for over a hundred years.

Topping Scholars for the class were selected through a competitive interview process at the end of the fall semester. During the spring semester, we met as a group once a month to have beginning conversations and introductory presentations about Japanese culture and society. Students were introduced to select faculty members and graduate students whose academic work concentrates on Japan; they also had a chance to meet and interact with current USC undergraduates who grew up in Japan. Just one month before getting on the plane, we held a joint class over Skype with students in an American Studies class at Doshisha University in Kyoto, individuals we would meet in person on the trip. Each class was asked to view one motion picture about the other culture and prepare questions for each other from those viewings. While we watched “Shall We Dance?” about ballroom dancing in Japan, the Doshisha students viewed “Freedom Writers,” a documentary about an urban high school classroom in southern California. This early experience in learning about each other was critical for future exchanges in person.

We also made provisions for our students’ entire families to find out about the travel, including a workshop for parents and families to explain the entire trip. In addition, we had learned the importance of maintaining a college-sponsored blog while we were travelling so that student reflections and photographs could be posted regularly and families had a low-cost way of keeping tabs on the group as we travelled. This blog led many younger siblings in the student families to express interest in college, study abroad, Japan, and attending USC in their own academic futures. Not only did this provide extra outreach to these families to share in this experience along with their students, it also helped to provide additional encouragement to our undergraduates from their own families to fully participate in the intellectual activities that this study abroad experience could generate.

Pre-Travel Studies

When we gathered on Monday after commencement for our first class meeting, the excitement of the students was palpable. We spent that week preparing the students to travel abroad by learning about Japan in Los Angeles, then got on the plane at the end of the week for the two-week intensive part of the class in Japan. The students had mini-lessons that week in Japanese history, language, and etiquette, which was reinforced with course readings. But our major activity was to explore aspects of Japanese culture and economy in Los Angeles. We started with a session by staff from the Toyota Corporation, who introduced us to their assembly plant where they receive automobiles from Japan at the Long Beach port to prepare them for the US market. Toyota corporate headquarters is located nearby in Torrance, and we visited there to hear about Japanese corporate culture in the United States, as well as internship possibilities for our students upon their return. Truck and train traffic through south Los Angeles, where many of our students reside, was chock full of international trade from the busiest ports in the United States, moving through their neighborhoods on the way to communities throughout the nation.

The American company we explored in Japan was the Disney Corporation, a Southern California institution, and in this pre-travel week, we had presentations from the vice presidents in charge of international operations and park relationships with Japan before visiting Disneyland in Anaheim. Each of these corporate visits was intended to give our students a background that makes their engagement in Japan more meaningful. In addition, we spent a day learning about Japanese American history in Little Tokyo and through the Japanese American National Museum. Besides learning the tragic story of Japanese internment in US concentration camps during World War II, we also experienced a lecture on Shinto religion in a Little Tokyo temple, as well as learning about a lost village of Japanese fisherman on Terminal Island. These days were also our first encounters with Japanese cuisine, with many of our students using chopsticks to feed themselves for the very first time. Another highlight of these days was the send-off provided by the Consul General from Japan in his offices in downtown Los Angeles.

Early on Saturday morning, the travelling group of nineteen—thirteen undergraduates and six advisors—gathered anxiously at Los Angeles International Airport for their air travel across the Pacific. Many parents and family members were there to say goodbye to their children, as this trip was the first ever flight of any kind for several of the young scholars. Once on the plane for the eleven-hour flight to Tokyo, I took advantage of the time to have office hours with the students individually to discuss their class research projects. Each young scholar had crafted a research project that they would work on in Japan.

We did not expect these students to become experts in Japan; rather, we helped them develop a research project that extends their primary intellectual interest in their majors with a comparative focus on that subject in Japan. Consequently, Jasmine Torres, who was interested in reforming the American foster care system, planned to explore how orphans from the recent tsunami in Japan are being reincorporated into Japanese society. And Ant’Quinette Jackson, whose academic work was focused in a pre-health career major, would be exploring how Japanese diet and exercise affects overall health results in comparison to US populations. For several first- and second-year students, this would be the first research paper they complete at USC, and the academic team leaders have already helped them craft their questions and find preliminary readings on their subjects. Even more importantly, none of the students had ever spent every day for three weeks with a faculty member, so this intensive experience of exchange made them more comfortable interacting with faculty overall in the future.

Learning Through Immersion

Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
  • Engagement within Diversity

We arrived in Tokyo exhausted but excited about the learning opportunities ahead. We spent our first full day exploring the vastness and diversity of the Tokyo metropolitan area. The students were initially amazed at the efficiency of the train and subway system and the commitment to parks and green space amidst the skyscrapers and elevated highways. We followed up on our Los Angeles activities by visiting Tokyo’s Disney Sea theme park and hearing from park operations and management about how they incorporate Japanese culture, including manga and anime, into their imagery and design. A day trip to rural Mishima allowed us to meet with Japanese college students at Nihon University, where the students there had prepared presentations for our students on their individual research areas. We were treated to an inside look at Google Japan, to understand how high tech companies take advantage of the creative impulse and talent in East Asia. By the end of this first week, we had explored Japanese imperial society, Shinto religious practice, and contemporary department store culture, all while taking in the sights and sounds of modern Japan. We even dedicated several hours for the students to explore Tokyo for their specific research interests, taking photographs of relevant sites and having conversations with local informants. By the end of that week, the only undergraduate who had already participated in a study abroad experience before this trip, Debbie Rumbo, told us that, upon reflection, she had learned more about this culture in a few days than she had in an entire semester in Spain in a traditional program.

As we boarded the Shinkansen—the bullet train—at the end of this first week, students and advisors had their first collective time to reflect on their journey so far on the six-hour trip to the other side of Japan in Hiroshima. We spent the second week of the trip visiting three different cities in Japan—Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Nagoya—to understand the diversity of Japanese life before returning to metropolitan Tokyo and our departure to the United States. It was this part of the class that had the largest cultural impact on our students, as they began to understand the long and complicated history of the nation, the strength of Japanese culture, and the power of interaction with Japanese people of all ages. That night, we were warmly hosted to dinner by the USC Alumni Club in Hiroshima and were able to meet fellow Trojans and hear their fascinating stories of combining American and Japanese lives. Several of our students learned about Japanese internment first-hand from eighty-two-year-old Marie Tsuruda, who was incarcerated with her family in Arkansas and Tule Lake and deported after the war. Since that time, she has lived in Japan teaching English. She earned her degree in teaching English as a second language at USC.

The impact of the Atomic Bomb Museum and Park in Hiroshima stayed with our students throughout the trip. The reality of the destruction of an entire city by American forces—and days later the second city of Nagasaki—is much more complex to assimilate when you are physically in the revived city itself. For many, this was the first time that they struggled with their American identities, having lived their lives in the United States mostly as racial minorities to this point. They were able to reflect on this experience in Miyajima Island, after a lunch cruise to one of the most beautiful spots in the Japanese nation. After a powerful evening of discussion and sharing, we traveled the next day to Kyoto, where we had the privilege of hearing from Professor Fanon Wilkins, an African American historian who has taught at Doshisha University for the past five years. Contrasting the comfortable heterogeneity of the United States with the homogeneity of Japan was a revelation for our diverse students, and we linger in discussions about the meaning of blackness and immigrant status in Japan. The beauty and the simplicity of Japanese temples and gardens in Kyoto positively overwhelmed our students, and we shared these experiences openly and honestly with newfound friends among the students we interact with in the classroom at Doshisha.

Nagoya, sister city with Los Angeles, was our last stop before returning to Tokyo. Here we fully understood our connection to automobile culture by experiencing the automation of the Tokyo Corolla plant that produces many of the cars we will see on the streets of Los Angeles. The Aishi-American Friendship Society hosted our reception in this city, and the students had the chance to interact not only with another group of Japanese students, but also business and education leaders and US Consulate officials in Nagoya. Upon our return to Tokyo, we had another day to focus on individual research projects before concluding the trip with a final Karoake celebration and exchange of gifts. After the long trip back to the United States, we met for two days at USC to go over final plans for research papers, as well as prepare for public presentations each student will make to the entire Topping scholarly community of over one hundred students at the program’s annual retreat in August.

Combining international travel, undergraduate research projects, and intense interaction with faculty and PhD students is a textbook example of several high-impact practices wrapped into one academic experience that will last a lifetime for most of these students. Transformations in intellectual perspective and personal growth take place during and after the trip by the bucketful, as individual students change their majors and incorporate plans for further study abroad into their academic schedules. First-year student Eric Ochoa decided to concentrate his academic major in industrial engineering, after meeting working engineers at Disney, Toyota, and Google, while sophomore Johanna Becerra plans to participate in a summer overseas program for engineers before she graduates. South Los Angeles native Jessica Guevara began contemplating the possibility of working abroad after graduation, while four students decide to enroll in a course on Japanese religions in the fall, despite never previously having an interest in that topic of study. The fact that all the students on this trip come from low-income families and are the first in their families to experience college means that these transformations ripple across various communities, including racial minority organizations and diverse student outposts in residential life. What makes the success of this experience possible is the partnership between academic life and student services, specifically the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences and the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund. The trust and camaraderie of leaders in these two entities make for powerful intellectual experiences for the most vulnerable of our undergraduates.

Promoting Global Leadership

As a faculty member committed to diversity through excellence in programming, classroom work, and student achievement, my role in organizing and teaching this intensive course to Japan has been among the most satisfying experiences in my academic career. I see the difference the course makes in students’ confidence, scholarly performance, and ability to conceptualize new places for themselves in global society. We need to promote global leadership among all students in American higher education, not only students born to money and privilege. Given the diversity of youth in the United States and the undergraduate population in our colleges and university, we must find new ways to introduce the world to all students and make comfortable the international exchange of ideas and experiences. I see my own personal contribution to this effort to be only possible by working with other education professionals, both academics and those in student services, who are committed to the success of students of color and those who come to college from modest backgrounds. In this way, I can make my own small contribution to an equitable global society of the future, one in which every student from every background can feel that they can make a positive impact on the world.


George J. Sanchez is the vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives at the University of Southern California.

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