While most college students enjoyed a leisurely spring break, a group of University of Maryland students chose an alternative path in Japan through a study abroad program led by START’s Dr. Katherine Worboys Izsak, in coordination with Japan’s Tohoku University. The experiential learning program is focused on helping students understand how communities prepare for, respond to and recover from natural and man-made disasters.
Students joined the program for a variety of reasons; some were interested in the field of disaster risk reduction management, others were drawn in by the opportunity to explore Japan.
Upon arriving in Tokyo, students were immersed in Japanese culture. Beyond sampling local cuisine, students got a taste of the country’s experiences with natural disasters. They took part in disaster simulations at the Bosaikan Life Safety Center and visited the Tokyo Rinkai Disaster prevention park.
After touring Tokyo, students traveled to Sendai, Japan, where they engaged in a series of activities alongside Japanese students from Tohoku University. Lectures on disaster and a tour of the disaster-affected region gave students a local perspective on the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. A visit to Minamisanriku, a town devastated by both earthquake and tsunami, offered another glimpse into communities affected by disaster.
“I learned how important it is to be aware of the situations that could occur in the area where you live,” said Emma Houck, a UMD sophomore double majoring in biology and secondary education. “Even small mitigation techniques – like properly educating yourself on risks in your area – are important and make a difference.”
After the tours, students were divided into groups and stayed with Japanese families.
“Staying with families that still call the disaster site home was memorable and powerful in ways that went beyond what I had expected,” said UMD senior Tenyamen Thomas, a public health science major.
“It can be difficult to incorporate cultural immersion and exchange activities into a study abroad program as short as this one,” Izsak said. “But we also know that these short-term programs are sometimes the only way that busy and resource-strapped students can experience another culture. Because of that, we focused the second half of our trip on the homestay experience and other cultural immersion activities, such as visits to two elementary schools. We aimed to help students observe and participate in community activities and experience first-hand the communities’ prioritization of life, family, and home after disaster.”
Overall, the students said the trip left them with a range of emotions. They said they were heartbroken at the catastrophes that the community faced and felt compelled to dive in and devote themselves to disaster relief. All of the students were moved by how resilient the communities they visited were.
“Everyone does their part to ensure that the community is strong and well,” said UMD freshman Julian Avenilla, a Japanese major.