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5 Questions for Luce Scholar in Japan

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We’re asking students, recent grads, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Taylor—a Luce Scholar from Texas who holds a Master's degree in International Relations from Syracuse University.

1. As an undergraduate student, you did a summer exchange program to Tokyo: What were your biggest takeaways from the experience?

Torii gate off the coast of Miyajima near Hiroshima

My biggest takeaway from my summer in Tokyo, which was my first experience in an Asian country, was that I should have studied abroad for a year instead! At the time, I had a job on campus and felt I needed to save up money even with a full scholarship, so I chose to enroll in a summer study abroad experience.

I think finances are a big concern for most American university students: They were for me at the time. In hindsight, I wish I would have ignored the FOMO that comes with parting from friends for two semesters and the financial pressure and stayed in Japan for an entire year. While I enjoyed all my experiences in Tokyo, it left me with more questions about life in Japan than lessons learned.

My Japanese improved at a rapid pace, and I was able to experience daily life that I had only read about up until then. I met like-minded friends and students of Japanese language, society, and culture who were also committed to centering cross-cultural exchange in their careers.

I feel like I’ve made up for this by spending a year abroad as a Luce Scholar, which has allowed me to travel across Japan to experience its diversity.

2. Congratulations on being named a 2023-2024 Luce Scholar! Could you share more about what this entails and about your current work in Osaka, Japan with Nijiiro Diversity?

Taylor at Kansai Rainbow Fest (Osaka Pride)
Taylor at Kansai Rainbow Festa (Osaka Pride)

I consult with Nijiiro Diversity and volunteer at the LGBTQ community center that the organization runs, Pride Center Osaka (PCO). Nijiiro Diversity is a Japanese NGO spearheaded by one of the few out and proud LGBTQ advocates in Japan. The organization performs research, advocacy, and education on LGBTQ issues to advance LGBTQ rights in Japan, which are severely limited due to lack of legal recognition and socio-cultural attitudes towards the queer community.

I help Nijiiro with research activities by designing and analyzing the data from their annual survey of LGBTQ work and life in Japan. Using my background as a public sector consultant, I assist with capacity-building of the organization through strategic planning, funding modeling, and detailing marketing approaches.

At Pride Center Osaka, I am afforded opportunities to connect with members of the community. I support PCO by assisting with social education lectures for students and cinema cafes screening LGBTQ films to the public, and I bring a mobile LGBTQ library to suburban and rural areas of Kansai through the PCO Pride Caravan.

3. Would you ever have imagined as a young teen that you’d be living and working in Japan today? What are some misconceptions Americans may have about future opportunities available to multilinguals?

I dreamed of traveling abroad, of course, but I did not think I would be working as an experienced professional in a Japanese organization. It’s difficult to see yourself succeeding in a place where you are most likely not an advanced speaker of the local language, separated from your family and friends, and adjusting to a different work culture. It’s difficult but it can be done!

Pride Center Osaka

I think this is not shared with many Americans as students, especially Black and Brown students with little to no financial support. There are many, many scholarships, fellowships, and grants available to undergraduate and graduate students to study or intern abroad in so many countries across the globe. If you attend a state university or an HBCU, then there are even more options through partnerships with international universities and private donors. For example, in the case of Japanese language learners, most students are told they can work in Japan as a JET, teaching English in Japan. However, you can also apply for MEXT scholarships through the Japan Ministry of Education to study any academic subject in Japan for free.

Talk to your campus fellowships advisor or check the websites of other universities to see what is available. You don’t have to apply through your university for all scholarships. Companies and foundations like the Japan Foundation and the US-Japan Foundation have study abroad opportunities too.

There is a high need for multilingual Americans—not just for language skills but also for the cultural understanding that accompanies learning a language. These are valuable assets to companies, governments, and NGOs alike, especially in our increasingly globalized and remote work environment.

As a student, I only knew of the U.S. Foreign Service as a place to use a multilingual skill set in the workplace. However, through research and networking, I learned that most federal and some state agencies have foreign affairs departments to handle anything from communication to trade with foreign countries. There are opportunities in NGOs that promote foreign culture within the U.S., such as the Japan-America Societies. Foreign companies, like Toyota, or global brands like Disney need multilinguals to be able to reach various audiences. TED requires multilinguals to translate TED Talks around the world.

My favorite find recently was learning of a cruise hosted by an NGO called Peace Boat, which is partnered with the United Nations to provide educational global voyages. It turns out the NGO is based in Japan and is always looking for multilingual volunteers to teach or interpret on the cruises. Of course, your accommodation and meals are free as a volunteer.

4. What advice would you share with current language learners or those considering studying a language?

My advice for anyone considering studying a language is to just do it. Language learning broadens your horizons and helps you become a global citizen.

Traditional Okinawan Food

Try to commit to learning a little bit each day and finding ways to immerse yourself in the language even while in the U.S. I have used apps with daily lessons or simple news websites in Japanese to help me maintain and improve my understanding. I also found local Japan-America organizations that host monthly events to promote exchange between Japanese and American people and businesses.

The more you study the language and meet others doing the same, the more opportunities you will be exposed to before deciding how to use the language in your personal or professional life.

5. What has been the most rewarding part of your language journey to date?

The most rewarding part of my language journey has been those moments where I have started to think in another language or have situations where the language just automatically clicks for me.

One such moment has been understanding different types of humor in Japanese. Living in the Kansai area, which is known for its outgoing people and conversations filled with constant jokes, I felt left out if I did not understand why everyone was laughing. However, one day my coworkers were talking at lunch, and I laughed out loud at something they said. It took me a moment to realize that I understood the vocabulary, grammar, feelings, and cultural implications of what they were saying in Japanese, all of which contributed to why the joke was funny.

Knowing that my commitment to studying a language was paying off in the most mundane of ways has left me feeling proud of my language journey.

BONUS QUESTION

What reflections on identity would you like to share about studying or living abroad?

Taylor at Osaka Castle
Taylor at Osaka Castle

When I first considered studying languages abroad or living abroad, after the initial excitement of wanderlust wore off, my concern was always about how I would be treated as a queer, Black American abroad.

Judging from all the forums and blogs on the subject, I was not alone in that concern. Everyone’s experience is different, not because marginalization does not exist, but because the people you encounter are all different just like you are.

I think it’s important to remember that the social identity people ascribe to you and your self-identity that you define for yourself may not always align, and that doesn’t mean your self-identities are any less valid. Living, studying, or working in a foreign country often means you will encounter even more situations where others may not understand or even respect you for who you are.

There are many ways to deal with these types of situations including using them as a cross-cultural learning opportunity. Setting clear social and professional boundaries to ensure you can perform your best while dislocated from your home country is just as important of an approach. I am fortunate enough to have a support system in the form of my fellow Luce Scholars, a progressive Japanese work environment, and other Black women living in Japan to consult with when I need.

Know that you can learn languages abroad and have an uplifting experience regardless of your self-identity.

Check out our Connect with Japanese or Language Programs & Funding pages to explore language scholarships, university programs, testimonials, and more! And, as always, visit @LangConnectsFdn on social media to share your story with us.