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Oct. 2, 2013

David Wong: First and Lasting Impressions

Oct. 2, 2013

David Wong is an associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology and was the faculty leader this past summer on a Freshman Seminar Abroad (FSA) program in Japan. His research areas of interest include motivation, the design of compelling experiences and global competency through study abroad experiences.

Are You Kidding? 

The whole FSA program seemed like a crazy idea to me. At the first meeting of the FSA faculty, I was told the basic goal of these programs was to take incoming freshmen overseas so that they may be better prepared for their years at MSU.

Incoming freshmen?! Overseas?! Before they even had their first class at MSU?! Are you kidding?

A few months after that meeting, I was standing in a slow-moving line as our FSA group boarded the plane from Detroit to Tokyo. I still had doubts about what students could gain from this program. On the one hand, I was pleasantly surprised with the diversity of our group.

The fact that more than 75 percent of this group was students of color created a special learning environment for each student. On the other hand, many of these students seemed extremely unprepared to gain anything for an overseas experience.

As I watched them pass one by one through the boarding gate, I noticed some were not wearing enough clothes, others lugging huge backpacks and a few clutching overstuffed bags of snack foods. Most of them had never traveled outside the United States. One girl had never even flown in an airplane...yet, here she was, about to embark on a 14-hour, non-stop flight. What had I gotten myself into?

Ramen is More than a Bowl of Noodles

Our charter bus pulled carefully into the parking space in front of our dormitory on the campus of Tokyo University of Agriculture. It was about 8 p.m. and the night was dark, hot and very humid.

All faculty and staff were looking forward to our first opportunity in more than 28 hours to take a shower and lie down. The body language of many students indicated they felt the same. However, a small group of students wanted to quickly check into their rooms so that they could get out and explore the surrounding neighborhood. "Ramen!" I heard them say. Apparently, they had spotted a ramen (noodle) shop from the bus window, and couldn't wait for their first taste of Japanese food.

The next morning in class, these students talked excitedly about how the ramen had tasted so good, how they ate so much and how they tried so hard to talk to Japanese students sitting on the stools next to them. The other students in our class listened intently, laughed along with the stories—stories they had surely heard at least once already. That evening, an even larger group of our students would return to the small restaurant to enjoy ramen. In that moment in our first class in Japan, I began to see the potential of the FSA experience.

Somehow, eating a simple bowl of ramen—basically noodles, broth and a few slices of meat—had become an opportunity for these young students to show initiative, explore new places, overcome challenges and try something unfamiliar.

As they shared their stories with others, I also saw how the passion of a few individuals could inspire the larger group to step out of their comfort zone and experience something new. In that moment, I realized these were the qualities I'd hope to see in all our MSU undergraduates.

Furthermore, as we talked in class about the ramen experience, I was able to connect the discussion to broader topics such as culture and history. Each student's experience had been so vivid, personal and rich that connecting this experience to MSU's learning goals was natural, educative and...just plain fun. 

Cafeteria Food is Good for You

After the ramen adventure, I began to see more examples of how our students flourished in the opportunities that come naturally with traveling in a foreign country. This next example also involves food.

As it turns out, getting a meal at a Japanese cafeteria can be quite difficult for a foreigner. Our students had to first look at models of the various lunch dishes, buy a corresponding ticket from a machine, and then present the ticket when ordering. Unfortunately, everything was written only in Japanese. However, by asking a lot of questions, taking pictures of the Japanese writing, and helping each other, every student was able to order successfully. As I watched them eating and talking, I couldn't help but believe that overcoming these challenges made their food taste all the more delicious.


A key element of our Japan FSA program was extensive interaction between our MSU students and Japanese peers. This interaction had seemed like a good idea in principle, but in truth, I wasn't at all confident it would go well. Japanese have a reputation for being reserved, exceedingly polite and inclined to avoid embarrassment for themselves and others.

To prepare for these meetings, we had spent considerable class time discussing greeting customs, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and general differences between Japanese and American social behavior.

The day came for our groups to meet. As the Tokyo and MSU students entered the room, they were quiet and kept to themselves. The classroom was very warm and humid and I waited out in the hallway. After a few minutes, I heard a few halting exchanges between our students. Before long, a growing stream of loud talking was spilling out into the hallway. I went back into the room to see laughing, animated pantomiming and excited viewing of pictures on cell phone cameras.

After class, the students spontaneously organized themselves into groups that went to eat, play games and sing karaoke. The next day in class, my students said, "Dr. Wong, we don't believe those things we read about how Japanese people behave."

They smiled as they waited for my response. Yes, they knew that experts had written the articles on Japanese culture. But, they had first-hand, current experience that didn't seem to fit with what they had read. After a pause, I smiled too. I couldn't have asked for a more authentic starting point for a thoughtful academic discussion.

Leaving MSU to Learn at MSU?

Some people might rightfully wonder why it is necessary to travel to Japan to have such experiences. I'm fairly certain that the things I saw on our FSA program are not impossible, but probably far less likely to happen if students remained on campus. Why? Students experience greater challenges and greater opportunities to learn in a foreign country. Cultural differences make it more difficult to communicate, get about and accomplish things.

In each challenge, however, is an opportunity for students to grow—in perception, knowledge competence and confidence. Also, when overseas, students were less able to seek refuge in the familiar or in isolation. At home or at a large campus like MSU, students can more easily find the familiar or isolate themselves from the unfamiliar. And, while routine and refuge are important, they can work against the kind of liberal learning MSU promotes. Thus, the FSA programs may be uniquely effective because they push and support students to counter their inclination towards the familiar or isolation. 

How are my Japan FSA students doing in their first semester at MSU? I've heard some have gotten together with each other to share past experiences and create new ones. Others have told me that they're making a deliberate effort to interact with international students. A number of them spent time with visiting Japanese students helping them feel welcome at MSU. A few students have even found jobs working for the Study Abroad Office. To be honest, it's too early to tell how their time in Japan will affect their four years at MSU. I am sure, however, they are off to a good start.