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EDUCATION > Universities

Leave of absence gives Tokyo University students eye-opening experiences

  • September 18, 2014
  • , Nikkei
  • JMH Translation

(Nikkei: September 18, 2014 – p. 29)

The University of Tokyo (Todai) introduced a gap-year system for first-year students in the 2013 academic year to allow them to gain more life experience soon after entering college. About six months have passed since the students who participated in the inaugural gap-year program returned to school. They engaged in a variety of activities to expand their knowledge abroad and work as interns in the quake-hit areas [in the Tohoku region]. One of the participants said, “Now I have a clear idea of what I what to do.” The participants in the program said unanimously that they would like to make good use of their valuable experience in their college life from now on.

Receiving inspiration from Western arts

“Now I feel like I can express my opinion with confidence,” said Takuya Shimazaki, who joined the “Fresher’s Leave Year Program (FLY Program),” at an open campus event held at the University of Tokyo. High school students and their parents who attended the event listened intently to Shimazaki, a 19-year old student, who was talking about his five-month experience at a language school in India.

Shimazaki wants to be a scientific researcher. An Angolan male student with whom he shared a dormitory room at a language school in Delhi told him: “Japanese people aren’t good at expressing themselves.” As a result of this experience, he has come to believe that he “needs to clearly express his opinions.” After returning to university, he now often speaks up in class. He said, “If I had not that experience, I would have aimlessly attended classes as many people around me do.” He feels that he was able to develop as a person in addition to pursuing his goal of mastering English.

One of the features of the FLY Program is that students must plan all their activities on their own. Many of the students were deeply influenced by spending time freely without having to stick to a specific agenda.

Mao Nishikawa visited museums and went to classical music concerts in eight European countries for about three months. She was particularly inspired by a classical concert she attended in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The 21-year-old female student said, “The concert gave me goose bumps.” She feels that the purpose of her study at the university has now become clear, saying, “I want to study world music in the future.” She also said, “I now strongly feel” more than I did before participating in the FLY Program “that I want to learn more.”

Moe Omiya saved money by working as a cram school teacher in Japan to study in Germany. The 20-year-old female student then studied the basics of architecture at a German university. She said, “I was able to take specialized courses by using my time freely.” She has been interested in becoming a scholar of architectural history since she was a high school student. She thinks she was able to expand her horizons by seeing a lot of art and exchanging views with students from around the world. She said enthusiastically, “I want to explore my own potential.”

Supporting reconstruction efforts in Tohoku

Although most of the 11 students that joined the FLY Program went abroad, some students contemplated their plans for the future by engaging their activities in Japan.

Shota Takubo participated in an internship program in areas hit by the Great East Earthquake. The 20-year-old male student became interested in doing volunteer work in the quake-stricken areas after hearing a lecture by former Kamaishi City Deputy Mayor Yoshikazu Shimada when he was a third-year high school student. Shimada is an alumnus of Takubo’s high school. Takubo asked Shimada: “Is there anything I can do to help?” As a result, he gained an opportunity to work in the city government. He was engaged in activities such as assisting small- and medium-sized companies. At first the managers of companies and other people ignored him. However, he eventually was able to build a relationship of trust after meeting with them repeatedly. Before participating in the leave-of-absence program, he was concerned about his future because he was unable to figure out what he wanted to do. By actually experiencing work that is hard but worthwhile, he said, “I can now think realistically about my future.”

The eight students who are participating in the FLY Program for the 2014 academic year have started their activities overseas.

Todai Executive Vice President Toshikazu Hasegawa, who is in charge of the FLY Program, pointed out: “I think that through experiences that they can’t get from studying at a desk in college, they’ve realized there are many things to learn about in the world. I think their experiences have helped boost their motivation to study after returning to school.” On the other hand, he said, “The participants are students who just graduated from high school. Therefore, it is imperative for the university to improve its support system for the participants.”

About 10 Japanese universities launch gap-year system

In the United States and Europe, many universities have introduced the gap-year (GY) system. In Japan, too, attention is now focused on the GY system as a measure to raise students’ motivation, increase the number of students studying abroad, and improve awareness about employment.

Akita International University (in Akita City) launched the GY program in the 2008 academic year for students enrolling in September. Students who want to apply to the program are screened when they take entrance exams about what activities they would like to engage in for six months from the time they graduate high school until they enter university. Successful applicants are able to experience such activities as studying abroad and volunteer work. Nagoya University of Commerce and Business introduced the GY system in the 2005 academic year. Under the university’s program, students engage in activities such as internships and volunteer work for four months in various European countries.

After completing the program, the participants are required to write a report and give a presentation on their activities in order to receive college credit for them. Masaki Nakatsu, head of the university’s entrance examination office, said, “By participating in the program, the participants are able to clarify their objectives for studying at the university. Their proactive approach to studying also helps motivate other students.”

According to Gap Year Japan (in Tokyo), about ten universities across Japan have introduced the GY system. Many Japanese universities have scholarship funds for students participating in the GY program, but they are not necessarily sufficient. The issue is to eliminate concerns such as the substantial expense and effects of studying abroad on students’ employment prospects after graduation.

Kaoru Sunada, deputy head of Gap Year Japan, said, “In order to increase the number of universities introducing the GY system, it is necessary to push forward in laying the groundwork for cooperation between the industry, government, and academic sectors by eliminating the negative impact on job-hunting by the participants in the program.”

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