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A Life-Changing Semester Abroad

Soka University building When University of Guelph-Humber Business student Spencer Brooks began studying the Japanese language two years ago, he saw it as a fun opportunity to learn more about a culture he admired and to develop a skill that could prove useful someday in the future.

But Brooks could not have known then just how soon he would get the opportunity to put his new linguistic skill into real-world practice.

Brooks has just finished a semester abroad studying at Soka University of Japan, an esteemed Tokyo-based institution with a 50-plus year history as one of Japan’s top global universities.

Given that it was the first time Brooks had travelled outside of Canada by himself, such an immersive international trip could have been as intimidating as it was inspiring. But with ample support available from both Soka University and the University of Guelph-Humber, Brooks felt well-prepared to hit the ground running in his first major trip abroad.

“I have been focused on wanting to go to Japan for a long time. I’ve always been fascinated by the culture in Japan, as well as the sheer size of Tokyo and the country itself,” said Brooks, who is entering his third year at the University of Guelph-Humber.

“To actually be able to come here, speak the language that I’ve been studying, and really communicate with the people here — it’s just been such an amazing experience.

“When you finally get to accomplish something that you have been working very hard towards, it’s an incredibly satisfying feeling.”

Broadening his horizons

Brooks’ journey to Japan was made possible by an exchange agreement between Soka University and the University of Guelph-Humber, one part of a larger relationship between the two institutions that has led to many educational opportunities for UofGH students.

UofGH is home to the Soka Education Research Centre on Global Citizenship (SERC-GC). Directed by Community Social Services Program Head Dr. Paul Sherman, the SERC-GC enables University of Guelph-Humber students to conduct research into the philosophy and practices of Soka (value-creating) education, with an emphasis on global citizenship.

For several years, UofGH students have also been invited to present their research at the Soka Education Conference, held annually at Soka University of America in California. With generous funding from the Makiguchi Foundation for Education in Japan having been extended through 2024, the SERC-GC recently kicked off its newest research project — a collaboration with students at Soka High School in Kansai, Japan that will culminate in student presentations at SERC-GC’s 2023 educational symposium in the winter.

“I was so pleased to hear of Spencer’s great success at Soka University,” Dr. Sherman said. “So far through our exchange agreement with Soka University, we have welcomed three Soka students to study at the University of Guelph-Humber.

“Spencer is the first of hopefully many University of Guelph-Humber students who will take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to study abroad in a university that prides itself on humanistic, value-creating principles.”

For Brooks, his experience at Soka University’s picturesque Tokyo campus began in March. Determined to make the most of his opportunity to learn the language, Brooks took the majority of his courses in Japanese and lived in a dormitory populated almost exclusively by Japanese-speaking students. He adored the architecture and layout of the campus, as well as the mountain-view backdrop of the small classrooms.

An avid photographer, Brooks also savoured any chance he got to venture off campus, explore the country, and capture his experiences. Some of his sight-seeing highlights during his time in Japan included a trip to Tokyo’s traditional temple complex Asakusa, a visit to the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing, and an awe-inspiring journey to Mount Fuji.

After years of admiring Japanese culture from afar, Brooks found that experiencing the country and culture first-hand opened up his perspective more than he could have imagined.

“Growing up, I watched a lot of Japanese TV shows and I read a lot of Japanese manga, so that’s kind of where my fascination with the culture came from originally,” Brooks said. “On the surface, Japan can be categorized as this futuristic society, but when you actually come here and experience it, you’ll find out there are so many more aspects and nuances to it that are so far beyond what the normal person thinks about when they think of Japan and Tokyo.”

Even his peers at Soka University noticed the personal growth in Brooks during his semester there.

“When we had our going-away party, my roommates commented on how much my Japanese had improved since I first arrived at the dorm,” Brooks recalled.

“I think what improved my language skills the most was just gaining the confidence to go out and use my Japanese.”

Brooks’ transition was also perhaps made easier by the fact that he found some similarities between Soka University and UofGH.

He had initially decided to attend the University of Guelph-Humber in part because of the small class sizes, close-knit community, and the opportunity to form personal connections to faculty.

So he was grateful to be able to find a similarly supportive and close-knit environment at Soka University.

“My experience at Soka was great. The teachers get very personal, and because there are not many people in the classes, I was able to get a lot of one-on-one time with my teachers whenever I needed it,” he said.

“The Soka philosophy is based on humanistic principles and approaches to education. I actually really felt that at Soka. If I needed anything at all, the staff was extremely helpful.”

Brooks was particularly grateful for that support network because this was his first time travelling independently and his first experience living alone without his family.

With his journey to Japan now behind him, Brooks wants to encourage other University of Guelph-Humber students to similarly strike out, see the world, and pursue their own travel dreams.

“Whether it’s Japan or any other country that you would like to visit, with the support of the University of Guelph-Humber, it is very simple and easy to take that big step that you need to go and live somewhere else,” Brooks said.

“I had little-to-no experience living by myself and I have never really been one to do this kind of thing. But with the support of Guelph-Humber, I’ve been able to thrive in Japan and Tokyo completely by myself.

“If you’re thinking about doing it, I think it’s very important to at least give it a try. It’s a huge growth experience. If you have the opportunity, you should take it — I don’t think you’ll end up regretting it.”