Gilman Scholar Shares Her Experience as an African American Student Studying Abroad

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Alexis T. Reed, Contributing Writer

During my first year of college, I worked tirelessly to afford the cost of studying abroad – including working a part-time job, applying for every scholarship I was eligible for, promoting my Go Fund Me campaign and entering in a public speaking contest on campus with monetary awards. My hard work paid off and I was the 2nd Place winner of the Stillman Public Speaking Contest and became a Gilman Scholar.

I participated in the UNO Japan Program in 2017. Studying abroad in Japan was a healthy culture exchange. Living in a rule driven society for four weeks, I quickly became immersed in the culture. By the end of the program, I was separating my trash (I.e. combustible items in one bin and recyclable in another) at my dorm and at school, bowing my head to greet people and giving gifts to my Tomodachi (“friendship”) partner. Tomodachi partners are college students at Doshisha University, the university we studied at. I gained environmental awareness and cultural awareness and stepped out of my comfort zone. Additionally, I became connected to a larger network within international education and developed confidence to travel independently.

In Japan, there are almost no public trash cans. It’s suggested to carry an empty plastic bag with you should you need one. One beauty of this is one could rarely smell an odor in Japan. It’s the cleanest air you’ll breathe! There are public trash cans near some vending machines and at my university. Separating trash is a norm in Japan. In fact, Tokyo’s citizens are given trash bags with their names on them so that if someone doesn’t separate their trash accurately, then they can be identified and informed.

Paper towels aren’t available in most public nor university restrooms. Rather, Japanese people carry small hand towels to dry their hands. These are two initiatives to reduce waste. I never considered wastefulness prior to this experience.

Studying abroad in Japan made me understand why foreigners might have certain attitudes towards or generalizations about Americans, such as laziness or lack of cultural awareness. It was also the first time I viewed myself as “American” rather than “black” or “African American” because I was seen as “American” to Japanese people. There isn’t  necessarily intersectionality in Japan like there is in America because Japan is a nation-state. I also realized some of my initial attitudes and norms were common of Americans collectively. My Anime and Manga course helped me understand Japanese culture and history. For the first time, I learned about World War II from a foreign country’s perspective. To my surprise, Japanese people were brainwashed about America’s intentions for entering the war. They almost view Americans as heroes for their actions in WWII, which includes nuclear destruction in Hiroshima. My professor gave us an optional task to ask our Tomodachi partners anything about WWII and expect an apology as their response. This made me realize that traveling is important so that I could learn about real history, not the Western influenced history I learned from textbooks.

My time in Japan challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. After our closing ceremony, my classmates and I participated in karaoke with some of the Tomodachi partners. Karaoke is a more popular pastime than watching anime in Japan. Karaoke bars can be found almost everywhere. Initially, I felt too shy to do karaoke but it is a different experience in Japan than in America — Japanese people are non-judgemental (no matter how off-key you are) and karaoke is done in intimate groups in separate rooms. Also, the equipment and sound system is really high tech so it could feel like you’re at a concert if you’re tech-savvy.

Studying abroad was so impactful that it motivated me to change my major to International Studies so I could take courses that would help me be a more well-rounded individual with a global analysis. It was also empowering because I gained independence. At the beginning of my trip, I was hesitant to go on excursions alone. I learned to trust myself and stop holding myself back by listening to my family members’ advice to not travel alone. I knew and I felt I was physically safer in Japan than in New Orleans. Eventually, I understood I was walking down an unfamiliar path alone and trusting myself and my sense of awareness would be my guidance, in addition to the knowledgeable and dependable UNO-Japan on-site staff.

Less than 10% of African-American students study abroad according to NAFSA. I believe it’s important for African American students to study abroad so we could gain control of our narrative Media is influential and travels internationally. Because American media sometimes projects African Americans negatively and inaccurately, foreigners might have a false perception of us. Black students’ presence alone could bring cultural awareness to foreigners and diminish inaccurate stereotypes and projections of us. 

 

Alexis Reed is an International Studies major at UNO. She is also a Youth Leadership Fellow and board member at the New Orleans Youth Alliance (NOYA). Her interests include social justice, travel, Black culture and history, New Orleans culture and history, and women’s issues.

Caption: Alexis Reed poses in Japan; photo courtesy of A. Reed.