Life After Soka: Yoko Kono (Undergraduate Class of 2007)
My name is Yoko Kono and I am an alumna of Soka University of America's (SUA) undergraduate class of 2007. After graduating from SUA, I attended Stanford University's School of Education where I obtained my Master's Degree in International Comparative Education. The academic rigor of my one-year program at Stanford was extremely demanding since I took courses from professors who were top researchers in the field of education. However, my academic experience at SUA prepared me to excel in graduate school.
The skills that I developed during my SUA career became the foundation for graduate school and my current job. The professors at Soka University strongly emphasized reading, research and writing skills. The senior Capstone project at SUA introduced me to the full research cycle which prepared me for my advanced thesis in graduate school. I am very grateful for the rigorous curriculum at SUA and the constant effort of the professors to provide a first-rate education to students. I also participated in valuable volunteer and internship opportunities related to education through SUA's Career Center. I was able to narrow down my interests to focus on education through such internships.
After graduating from Stanford University, I moved to a small town in semi-rural Hunan Province, China, to teach English as a C.J. Huang Fellow. I was selected as one of two Stanford graduates to go to a secondary school built by a Chinese-American philanthropist. He discovered that there was no school when he visited his hometown 25 years ago. Now Ou Yang Yu Middle School (OYY) in Xintang Town serves about 3,000 junior high and high school students from rural areas and poor families. OYY is a boarding school where almost all students live on campus. The students have class Monday through Sunday from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with about three holidays per month to return home. The town consists of one main street and five side streets. Although the urban luxuries of coffee shops, Western food and packaged meat are not available, local fruits and vegetables, mom-and-pop shops, and small restaurants are abundant.
Adjusting to a new culture, diet, housing, and daily life was difficult, but my study abroad experience in Nanjing, China during my junior year at SUA gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect. I definitely was not afraid of living in a foreign place, but I was pretty nervous about teaching and putting the theoretical framework I learned in graduate school into practice in the classroom. I was also nervous about how the community, especially my new students, would receive me as a Japanese American teacher. My supervisor with the non-profit organization affiliated with the fellowship had informed me that the school wanted an "American-looking" teacher. I was also aware that in rural areas like Xintang there would be negative feelings toward Japanese people due to the tragic history of Japan's military aggression in China during World War II.
Later, I learned that many of the teachers at OYY hated the Japanese people as a result of stories passed down by families and friends who had first-hand experience in the Sino-Japanese War. Due to these circumstances, I knew that I had a very big opportunity and responsibility to help build a bridge of understanding for the people of China, Japan, and the United States. Many of my students and their teachers had never met an American or Japanese person. My focus was to be a good English teacher and contribute to the school community while being true to myself. I started forming connections with students and teachers and these worries faded away.
As the months went on, teaching English proved to be my biggest challenge. I taught 13 classes during the week to 7th and 10th graders with 35 to 45 students per class. Trying to get a classroom full of 7th graders to sit down definitely tested my patience! English proficiency was very low and many students were not motivated to learn. The other foreign teachers and I did our best to encourage students to take an interest in English. We introduced Western culture and international holidays through class and other activities, including tri-weekly English Corner sessions, a Halloween party and a Christmas Talent Show.
In addition to teaching, the fellowship included a budget to plan and implement service projects to meet the needs of the school community. We were able to carry out a number of projects including: 1) inviting health experts to promote and educate students about smoking cessation, HIV/AIDS, and nutrition, 2) fundraising for distribution of eye-glasses, and 3) publishing a magazine of student writing and artwork in both English and Mandarin.
Although my primary job was to teach and manage service projects, the greatest joy of being at OYY was in becoming an integral part of the school community.
During the year that I was at OYY, I learned that most of my students wanted to further their education. These young students from very humble backgrounds knew what a privilege it was for them to receive an education, and despite financial hardship, their parents were investing in their children's education. Although the odds are against them because of the inequitable access to quality learning, larger class sizes (average of 60), and poor diet compared to their urban counterparts, the students are very resilient. We spent time outside during their limited free time to play sports or just talk and joke around. Students often dropped by our apartment on campus to practice their English, play games, or even cook Chinese food for us. These encounters and exchanges with students brought a lot of joy and meaning to my work. I am very appreciative that I had such a rare opportunity to be part of an effort to improve the education of disadvantaged youth in China. This experience solidified my enthusiasm for education and international development.
As an SUA graduate, I was also pleased to learn that many Chinese have a deep understanding of Soka Education and are familiar with the founder of SUA, Daisaku Ikeda. While in China, I met other students from Soka schools who were graduate students at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou and who were focusing their studies on Soka Education. I had the opportunity to meet with their academic advisor, Ms. Wang, who was the head of the Daisaku Ikeda Research Center. She told me that there are over 20 research centers in China focused on studying the philosophy of Soka Education and Mr. Ikeda's works. I was surprised to witness the breadth of our university founder's global efforts to promote peace. It also made me appreciate Mr. Ikeda's work to strengthen Sino-Japanese relationships in the 1970s, despite criticism for visiting China, a communist country.
After a fruitful year in China, I am now interning at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Bangkok's Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau, working for programs related to secondary education. UNESCO's Education division offers support to Ministry of Education officials and policy planners regarding education reform. It has been an eye-opening experience to see how my academic training and work in semi-rural China complement my work at UNESCO. I hope to continue working to improve the quality of education for youth internationally.
The values, world outlook, and hopes that I cultivated while I was an SUA student continue to be the source of my passion for working for the happiness of humanity through education. I look back on my days at SUA and I am so grateful that I attended this university. In those four years, I created lifelong friendships, received a great education, and developed the life philosophy and values that I hold today.