Amanda Glasser, 21, a senior International Relations major at Mills, found herself standing on a train platform in Tokyo last year, watching in horror as the last train departed from the opposite platform with all her friends inside it. It was a long walk home from the train station, but it taught Glasser a very valuable lesson.
"After that I just felt very like ok, I can do this. It does not matter how lost I get, how much money I don't have. I will figure this out," she explained. "It's like, if I can't do this, I should just go home."
Glasser returned last month from an international exchange program at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. Like many students, she has wanted to go abroad since her first year at college.
"I thought, 'Why not?' Going abroad is fun and I don't want to go to Europe because everyone else goes to Europe," said Glasser.
Several Mills students have found the study abroad program a worthwhile experience, and many have chosen to forgo popular European countries in favor of East Asian destinations such as Hong Kong and Tokyo. Although adapting to daily life in Asian countries was a unique challenge, students are returning to Mills this semester with a newfound appreciation for cultures in which communication was at times extremely difficult.
Irene Florez, 22, also a senior International Relations major, joined Glasser in Tokyo for the same year-long exchange. For her, studying abroad through international exchange was an opportunity to gain a new perspective with minimal cost and paperwork.
"Mills has agreements with lots of Asian universities so students can get scholarships," explained Florez, who opted for the year-long program because funding was cut for the summer program.
Florez also pointed out that the application for international exchange, where Mills sends students abroad and international students come here, is much shorter and less intimidating than that of study abroad, which usually requires an application for both Mills and a specific program.
However, there were some surprises when they arrived in Japan.
"We were blindsided on the first day," said Glasser. "The tutors that were supposed to pick us up showed up about and hour and a half late, wearing high heels, which was a mistake, trying to carry our luggage," said Glasser.
Florez explained that they were assigned to off-campus housing an hour and a half away from the university by train. Although the distance from the university prevented both students from taking the intensive language course that met every morning, they each discovered positive aspects about living so far from campus.
"We actually lived across from a small temple, a shrine that tolls the bell at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.," said Glasser. "Now, after awhile it got annoying, but for that first day there it was kind of like wow, you're in Japan. It was a magical thing, how wonderful."
"I was more exposed to Tokyo daily life. I think that's something students that lived on campus didn't get," said Florez, "like the commute and rush hour."
Sarah Wallis, 22, a senior economics major and student worker for the International Study Resource Center, similarly recalls commuting in Hong Kong as an intense and unique experience.
"You learn to get over your love of personal space," said Wallis. "Just the masses of people going out anywhere, the neon lights at dusk. You can't imagine it 'til you go there."
Commuting was sometimes a harrowing experience.
"There was one time where it was really bad," said Florez. "The trains were backed up and there were many people packed into one car. We dropped our things and couldn't really pick them up."
Wallis, Florez and Glasser all had difficulties with language barriers in the East Asian countries.
"The culture is reserved and on top of that, I didn't speak the language," said Florez. But as a Spanish speaker she was able to connect with other Spanish- speaking international students.
Asra Chatham, 21, a senior PLEA Legal major, had an easier time communicating in Paris, where she went for spring semester of last year. She has been taking French since seventh grade.
"I wanted to go to a French-speaking country," explained Chatham. "I just felt that was the next step to really improve on the language."
In fact, Mills requires that students traveling to Spanish or French-speaking countries must demonstrate proficiency in the language before they are approved to study abroad. Students traveling to countries that speak languages not offered at Mills, however, have no such requirement.
While Chatham was able to communicate reasonably well in Paris, she did get a taste of what her fellow Mills students were experiencing in Asia.
"I went to Barcelona for spring break and I don't speak any Spanish at all," said Chatham. "It really made me realize how well I could communicate in French compared to not being able to communicate at all in Spanish and having to rely on other people. That would have been crazy, if I had to spend six months like that."
Despite very different and sometimes difficult experiences, all the women agree that studying abroad is an amazing opportunity that should not be missed.
"Just do it, because when else are you going to be able to just pick up and live in another country for six months or a year?" said Chatham. "Stay as long as you can."