This article is by Jason Bartashius and Jessica Caparini.
Wearing Santa hats and full of holiday cheer, university students sang Christmas carols and handed out presents to Fukushima evacuee children at a Christmas party in Fushimi. The children’s faces lit up when a Japanese Santa and a Canadian Mrs. Claus began handing out presents. Joining hands with community volunteers, the students had helped to organize this event for children who have relocated to Kyoto.
These students were not part of a campus volunteer group. Nor did they assemble as a group of friends. This was an optional assignment for the Service Learning course taught by Stephen Dalton at Osaka Gakuin University.
In the course students first learn about social problems via guest speakers and lectures. Upon gaining a well-rounded understanding of a given issue, the students then engage with the problem through volunteering. Finally, they do reflection exercises in a journal so that the experience becomes “part of the student.”
The most unique aspect of the course is that its doors are open to both Japanese and international students. Students work in pairs when they volunteer, and each pair consists of one Japanese and one international student. As a result every student must struggle to overcome language and cultural barriers. As they overcome those obstacles, students gain insight into what it means to be a global citizen working for the betterment of society.
“Service learning is a win, win, win situation. The community benefits from the students’ volunteer efforts. The students also benefit. In the classroom they see the larger context of the problems they are trying to ameliorate. And there is a positive effect on the university. Working with evacuees inspired students to start their own book drive for Tohoku. They wanted to let the campus community know they can help Tohoku without going there,” said Dalton.
Two motifs running throughout the course are Japan’s ongoing demographic problems and the current energy dilemma. The class discussed Japan’s aging population problem and the ongoing nuclear crisis. Students then spent time assisting the elderly at nursing homes and meeting Tohoku children living in temporary housing in Kyoto.
Yuko Nishiyama, a Fukushima mother and activist, visited the class to discuss her experiences and the struggles evacuees face. She then arranged for the university students to visit the temporary housing.
The students made their first visit to the temporary housing in November. For that occasion each pair of students organized either an educational activity or game to play with the kids. Children learned how to play patty-cake and sing familiar nursery songs in different languages like Chinese and English. These children were not simply on the receiving end though. They were giving the students a deeper, more intimate understanding of the situation evacuees are in.
“By spending time together I want students to have a new image of evacuees. Because information from the news is not a real picture of people,” says Nishiyama. Herein lies one of the main goals of Service Learning, connecting students with real life situations to broaden their perspectives in ways not likely possible in the classroom.