Sending Our Students To Asia

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - January 11, 2006

OK, dear reader, strap yourself in. I’m asking you this week to follow the meanderings of my mind - no easy task as my brain ages and mental detours become the norm.

Let’s start in Hilo, where last September I went to visit some friends. While there, my host received a computer hook-up from his daughter, a 20-year-old Japanese-American Georgetown University student doing her junior year in Egypt. She sounded excited about her experience, learning more every day, full of the significance of the region she was studying.

Then over Christmas I attended the 21st birthday party of a cal-abash niece - a lovely young woman - who attends Dartmouth College. She had recently returned from a semester in Italy, so the party’s theme was Italian: delicious Italian food, Chianti on the liquor table, the honored guest in Italian garb. Same honored guest addressed us in Italian; and we sang, raucously, Italian songs.

In November I attended the annual meeting of the Military Intelligence Service boys who served as Japanese-language interpreters during World War II. All AJA, of course, they were largely nisei who, at their parents’ insistence, had attended Japanese language schools, been good students in high school, and been seconded from the 442nd Regimental Combat team into the ranks of interpreters.

More than a half-century ago, when congressional delegate Jack Burns was attempting to sell statehood for Hawaii to recalcitrant colleagues in the U.S. House and Senate, he argued repeatedly the role Hawaii’s diverse population could play in interpreting Asia to the continental United States - and the continental United States to Asia.

Hawaii’s people knew the languages and cultures of Japan, China, and Korea and could help explain those cultures to their fellow citizens - just as the MIS boys had played such a role in a more violent time and place.

Back to my two young women. The Georgetown student is an American of Japanese ancestry whose grandfather served and bled with 442nd regimental combat team in Italy and France. The Dartmouth student is of Chinese-Hawaiian ancestry (mostly Chinese).

They’re both bright young women, attending two of the finest universities in the country. But they are east coast, continental universities, and they look across the Atlantic to Europe and the Middle East.

In the 21st century, however, we will look increasingly across the Pacific to Asia. The tremors from China’s explosive economy are felt around the world. Much that America consumes comes from Chinese factories, and the notes of our national debt are as likely to be found in Shanghai vaults as German. The center of world auto manufacturing is moving rapidly from the United States and Europe to Japan and Korea.

With continental proportions and a dominant Caucasian population of European origins, the other 49 states will move ever so slowly toward a recognition of Asia’s importance. But Hawaii should be showing the way.

In some ways it is, of course. The University of Hawaii-Manoa boasts impressive Asian emphases in philosophy, art, history, drama, languages. Its faculty includes eminent Asian scholars in many fields. And its foreign language department offers instruction in range of Asian languages as great as any university in the country.

Like my young Dartmouth and Georgetown friends, 465 of the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s 16,000 undergraduates studied abroad last year. But also, like my young friends, they opted to study in Europe.

Seventy-five went to Japan, 29 to China, two to Korea, one to Taiwan, and one to Cambodia. “The irony is that it’s hard to get our students to go to China, Japan and Korea,” says Sarita Rai, the director of the study abroad office at Manoa.

“In surveys we’ve done, they acknowledge Asia’s importance, but they indicate they can get there anytime, and that they want to get to know other parts of the world. It’s easier to sell a study abroad year in Japan to Mainland students than it is to UH undergraduates.”

Hawaii’s undergraduates also appear to be risk averse. “Their study abroad experience has to be packaged to attract them, and they want modern facilities and are concerned about safety,” says Rai.

Understandably, but I would venture that they need money as well. University of Hawaii undergraduates often come from financially strapped families, and footing the bill for a year in Japan, Korea or China requires significant financial aid.

The University of Hawaii is currently involved in a major fund drive to mark the school’s centennial. Much of the money raised will be devoted to buildings, endowed professorships, program development - the usual.

Yet the vitality of the university and the long-term future of the state would benefit most from a $5 million to $10 million endowment to support scholarships for study abroad in Asia.

Consider a UH campus with not 465, but 1,250 students per year studying abroad, three-quarters of them in Asia. Consider the expertise, the enthusiasm, the language skills they would bring back to Manoa, Hilo, Kapolei, wherever around the state. Consider the long-term skills they will offer the Hawaii labor force.

It’s well worth the $5 million to $10 million investment, probably far more.

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