By Paige Kube
Pictures and newspaper clippings of the aftermath of the disaster that struck Japan last year decorate Professor Noriko Narita’s office as reminders of how much work still needs to be done to help the country. Professor Narita’s passion has led her and fellow professor Andrew Oros to plan a spring break trip to Japan for Washington College students to help with the relief effort and to learn about the area.
Not long after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern coast of Japan, students at WC actively raised money for the relief campaign.
“The students were wonderful. They donated out of their pockets to the relief efforts,” said Professor Narita. She visited Japan last summer, lending her hands to the relief efforts in her home country where her friends and family lived when the triple disaster hit.
Professor Narita was not the only one who had a personal connection with the disaster-stricken country.
Dr. Oros, who spent a short-term stay in Japan as a high school student, said, “It literally changed my life. If I can encourage a change in direction of one of my student’s lives in a similar way, I’d be very happy.”
Upon Narita’s return from Japan, Dr. Oros joined her in applying for a grant through the Japan Foundation, an institution related to the Japanese government, in order to make the spring break trip possible.
“They are seeking to promote interest in Japan especially among undergraduates. They contacted me for advice about how to develop the program, and I immediately thought I wanted to apply for funds for WC students,” said Dr. Oros.
After five months of extensive emails and a competitive grant application, WC was awarded a grant and the student application process began. Emails were sent out to all students in October, urging people to apply, and several interest meetings were held before applications were due. The chosen 18 students are required to take POL 346 (Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy) this semester in order to receive the grant and travel to Japan.
Many of the students chosen have a deep interest in Japanese culture or a profound affection for the country.
Senior Preston Hildebrand said, “I had the privilege of studying abroad in Asia at Lingnan University in Hong Kong for a semester my junior year. During that time I was able to travel around much of Asia. I had set a time to travel to Japan for March, but the triple disaster of the tsunami, earthquake, and Fukushima [nuclear plant accident] struck. My family and I decided to wait for another opportunity to visit Japan. I never knew that chance would come so soon; I had believed that I would have to wait years before I could get back to Asia.”
Freshman Ceaira Jessamy shares a similar desire to visit.
“The Japanese culture has always fascinated me, moreso than American culture sadly, and having the opportunity to learn more about Japan firmly grabbed hold of my interest,” she said. “Taking Japanese Politics has encouraged me to take a better look at the world around me- both domestically and internationally- and being able to physically go to Japan is definitely a plus.”
“It was a competitive application with several worthy students not able to be selected due to a limit on how many students I could take,” Dr. Oros said.
The group will depart Saturday, March 10 from Chestertown and return to campus around 2 p.m. Saturday, March 17. Aside from volunteer activities to help with the continuing process of recovering from the disasters, the group will attend lectures regarding different relief efforts and visit the U.S. embassy. The group will be staying at Shinjuku Washington Hotel in Tokyo for five nights and for one night in a newly built community center in the tsunami-affected village.
The students and professors are eager to begin their efforts.
Sophomore Emily Hoyle said, “I can’t wait to see the affected areas in person and know that our joined efforts with local Japanese disaster relief organizations will really make a difference.”
Dr. Oros said, “I’m most excited about traveling to the tsunami-affected area and lending a personal hand in the recovery. We mustn’t forget that people struggle with disaster recovery for years, not just the few weeks it is in the news headlines, in Japan, on the Gulf Coast, in Haiti, or elsewhere.”
The bulk of the funds raised is anticipated to go toward a new library in Matsushima, where there are currently no books for school children. Donations from the Friends of the Miller Library and Chestertown residents have aided in raising $7,000 to be put towards Washington College Miyato Library.
Although it is hoped that the money will go directly towards this library, if the area has a different top priority, the funds will go towards that first. Nonetheless, boxes of donated books stacked in Professor Narita’s office will be brought on the plane with the travelers. They are hoping to have each book signed by a WC student. If interested in signing books, please contact Professor Narita or visit her office, Goldstein 109, to sign up.