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York–Tohoku virtual cultural exchange

Mary Taylor Lewis shares her experience of the Centre for Global Programme's virtual student exchanges

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The triple lockdown has turned daily life into one long Zoom call; from university seminars, and job interviews, to birthday parties, and even travelling through Zoom. The York–Tohoku virtual exchange programme gave me the chance to connect with Japanese students without leaving my room...

I had never heard of Tohoku before the global programme email flashed across my screen, but Japan has always been a top destination for me. A quick google of the university brought up a beautiful green campus. I knew there was no way I’d be visiting anytime soon, so a virtual meeting with some of Tohoku’s students was a pretty good way to find out what life was like there.

I signed up for this exchange with a lot of enthusiasm but no real idea of what was in store; I didn’t even know anything about the Centre for Global Programmes. Thankfully, the exchange was very informal and I had a great experience just chatting and sharing stories with other students. Although, in anticipation of this article, I wanted to do some further research. I talked to Andras Sztrokay, the convenor for the programme, who helpfully provided some background information.

Andras told me the course has been running for a few years, but this is the first time they’ve tried it online. It was “traditionally part of a creativity module,” and was designed to provide a “strong cultural experience” for the Tohoku students. The programme was dedicated to bringing Tohoku students over to York and introducing them to city and campus life with “tours & social activities with student mentors” to  create the “full experience of being a student at York.”

The virtual exchange certainly reflected the original programme's ethos. Upon joining the Zoom, 60 participants were split into ten groups and swiftly dispatched into breakout rooms. My room was evenly split with three students from each university – representing York was myself, Safia, and Venna, and from Tohoku were Keita, Naoko, and Tomoko. The first one-hour session was spent just getting to know each other. We had been given some broad topics for discussion, so our conversation centered on the cultural similarities and differences in school life, our studies, gender roles, leisure time, and family structures.

We also discussed our favorite holidays. Similar to Britain, there is a day’s holiday in Japan for royal occasions, for instance, the Emperor’s birthday. Remembering the sea of union jacks which accompanies any British royal event, I asked if something similar happened for them. Naoko said people did put out national flags but her family didn't get that involved. We both agreed the attraction of these royal events was not a patriotic duty, but a day off.

My favorite moment was when Naoko and I were discussing school rules. Both of us said the length of the school-skirt was strictly regulated, but this rule was repeatedly broken by rolling up the skirt’s hem, and then Tomoko (who was a chemistry teacher) declared she hated checking the length of girls' skirts, as they are always too short!

However,  the conversation didn’t always flow easily. The awkwardness of six people talking over Zoom, coupled with the language barrier, did make discussions quite stilted. The conversation resembled this; I asked a question. Naoko responds. Pause. Keita responds. Pause. Tomoko responds, then repeats the question back to us. Safia responds. Pause. Venna responds – and this repeated throughout the hour. Although, any Zoom call with more than four people is bound to fall into this pattern.

We had three, one hour sessions together, with the final session being a presentation from each of the ten groups. For me and the other York students this was a nice way to finish off the exchange, but for the Tohoku students it made up one part of their five assessments.

I asked Andras about his plans for the future of the programme, he said that “for this course, in particular, we definitely hope to have them [Tohoku students] on campus, and face-to-face, next year.” If you are interested in this programme, or similar Global Opportunities in the future, Andras let me in on three ways to get involved. You can become a student social coordinator or student mentor, and work regularly with the office on their programmes. Second, if you're looking for a more informal role, then you can pre-register your interest for projects by signing up to the mailing list. Finally, there is the International Conversation Afternoon, in which current short course students from different countries are joined by York students for virtual conversation and study. This used to be every week in one of the campus cafes, but a benefit of learning online is it can be put on twice a week, to fit in with different time zones – it is flexible, so drop in whenever.

Overall, the York-Tohoku experience was brilliant. I enjoyed talking and meeting new people, who I never would have connected with if this was a ‘normal’ university year. Andras reflected that this was also true for the Tohoku students as the “online learning” made it “easier to get involved and it gives opportunities to those not available to travel to York.” I have sent a post-project email out to Keita, Naoko, and Tomoko and we can hopefully keep this connection, even if it's just through Facebook. It was nice to find out that, in just three hours, complete strangers from opposite sides of the earth can find things to bond and laugh over.



This new ‘Zoom age’ often feels draining, so it felt great to remind myself that online living can bring new opportunities – you’ve just got to be on the lookout.

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