Reflection from Kim Hallback GS '95

Since graduating in 1995 from Soka University of America, Calabasas, I have taught English to international students at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Soka University of America, and Indiana University. I have taught enthusiastic students, apathetic students, gregarious students, hysterically funny students, and timid students. I have also taught refugees who walked across Myanmar to Thailand to escape forced labor by the military. I had classes of Afghan associate professors. One shared that he was tipped off that the Taliban was going into his city the next day. He left by foot that night and when he returned, he discovered that his university library had been demolished by a bomb. I cannot imagine how I would have handled the challenges of teaching and taking care of these students and all of my students without the solid foundation I received at SUA. The knowledge that I gained, and the values shown in the behavior of the founder, professors, and dean prepared me for teaching, nurturing, and empathizing with these individuals and all the students in my care. 

None of what I was able to actualize with my students over the years could have been possible without my experience at SUA, a university created by the indefatigable grit and commitment of the founder, Daisaku Ikeda. He looked to the graduate students to be protagonists of peace. He made us want to be better, do better, for ourselves and others. On December 20, 1995, our graduation day, Dr. Ikeda sent a message conveying how we could contribute to others. He wrote: “Lastly, I would like to share with you three invaluable directives for life left to us by Mr. Makiguchi, in the hope that you will embrace them in the depths of your being.” 

The founder’s first directive states: “Never peddle your knowledge, nor force it meaninglessly on others. Rather, be truly sagacious leaders who proffer the “keys of wisdom” which enable others to unlock the treasure houses of knowledge.” I learned this way of teaching from my professors at SUA. Dr. Terrie Mathis was our professor of sociolinguistics. I wrote a paper on gender-bias and how stereotypical views limited all humans in choosing a vast array of professions. I also examined how inequitable treatment of students can affect their academic performance and ability to form a strong identity. Learning the content made me more cognizant of how imperative it is to provide an atmosphere of equality. Terrie provided that atmosphere, and she “proffered the keys of wisdom” through her teaching style. In a tone that conveyed her curiosity, she would often question us about our comments, making us dig deeper. She guided us, intent on getting us to question and think critically, believing we could unearth reason and insights. Using Terrie’s style of instruction, I now find myself asking my students questions using a similar tone of curiosity.

The founder’s second directive states: “Be people of character, who partake of the joys and sufferings of your fellow citizens, and who can create the harmonious coexistence, the mutual prosperity of self and other, of the individual and the community.” Jonathan Epstein, our methodology professor, created a harmonious community in our classes. His activities had us sharing about ourselves. We became so much closer as a class. Also, from Jonathan’s behavior, I learned the importance of building rapport with my classmates, and then with my students. He gave us an article titled “Tell Me More” by Brenda Ueland. The author relayed that humans seek encouragement not from the “hard, practical ones who can tell you exactly what to do, but to the listeners; that is, the kindest, least censorious, least bossy people you know. It is because by pouring out your problem to them, you then know what to do about it yourself.” The article mirrored Jonathan’s behavior; his immersed attention to all of us was ever-present. We never felt a hint of judgement from him as he listened to us. Even adults need a Mr. Rogers, and he was ours. Through his example, I learned to be an earnest listener to my students. I have had the privilege and joy of listening to my students share accomplishments, academic struggles, fun family traditions, problems with bulimia, sayings from grandparents, boyfriend breakups, and aspirations. 

The founder’s third directive states: “Never be satisfied with passive goodness. Be a person of courage and mettle who clearly debates and distinguishes right and wrong, and who takes bold and committed action for good.” Dr. Tomoko Takahashi, Dean of the Graduate School, was a “person of courage and mettle” who took “bold and committed action for good.” Through her sheer will, leadership skills, and piercing insights, she contributed to the creation of SUA and the Master of Arts in Second and Foreign Language Education. The MA program was rigorous. When I was a graduate student, there were times when I felt stressed and beleaguered, often worrying about completing papers and what in the world I was going to do after graduating. I recall that Dr. Takahashi’s door was often open, radiating a welcome for those who passed by. She was there for us. My first semester, I wrote in a journal, “I went to see Dr. Takahashi today. I felt so much better when I left her office. She told me the story of how she worked like mad to complete her PhD (with a self-imposed deadline). She also relayed her interest in a Soka University in the United States ten years before the graduate school opened. I was so glad she told me all of this. I heard what I needed to hear.” Her tenacity to earn her education and achieve her goal of contributing to the establishment of a Soka university heartened me to keep going in my classes and pursuing my dream. Dr. Takahashi seemed to always be thinking of us and what we needed. She was ardently dedicated to the success of the then fledgling school and graduate students. 

coretta scott king at calabasas

The SUA Human Rights Lecture Series bestowed another type of education. This community outreach and campus resource demonstrated the core values of Soka Education: a call to action in global citizenship. Featured guests, through their own stories of resolve, inspired the path of valuable and effective change. In 1995, Coretta Scott King was a guest speaker. She stated that it was important to have discussions on human rights and racism. She said, “I guess we have thought that we have won these victories, but we have to go back and fight for them over again. And once we do that, I think we have to remember to teach our generation, teach every generation, that they have a responsibility to fight, to win the freedom again and again.” My students have discussed the inner fortitude of Rosa Parks, the strength and civility of Jackie Robinson, the good troublemaker John Lewis, and the eloquence and light of Amanda Gorman. 

In 2017, a student in my teacher training class for international graduate students gave a presentation on Black Lives Matter. He was from South Korea, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science. He was a very conscientious and diligent student, with a sincere desire to learn about American society. However, at the end of his presentation, I thought, “Oh, no. He doesn’t get it at all.” It was like he described the outside of a house and made no mention of the myriad details of the inside; the presentation was a shallow description. I asked if he and the other classmates would like to learn more on the topic from a speaker who was knowledgeable in this area. They eagerly replied yes. They would be teaching undergraduate students soon, and it appeared they wanted to have a deeper understanding of BLM. I invited an African-American friend to the class who had studied multiculturalism and race in graduate school. Sharing her education and own grim and triumphant experiences and having a question and answer session, she enlightened the students. The students were able to take in this new perspective. This opportunity provided a discussion on race and human rights to teach the next generation, as Coretta Scott King had recommended.

Another Human Rights Lecture Series presenter was Harry Wu.  His was a story of persecution by the Chinese government. He was unjustly accused as a spy. He could have been condemned to death, except that he had become an American citizen, so instead he was forced to leave China. He became a human rights activist. In a similar case of unjust labeling, I had a PhD student whose government had mistakenly put his name on a list of terrorists. He contacted authorities in his country to deny any connection, but he was not believed. My student was both livid and frightened, knowing with certainty that he would be put in jail upon his return to his country. Before his final semester, he would be required to go back if he was unable to pass a teaching test, which would allow him to teach and thereby receive funds to complete his last semester. He became so despondent about the unjust situation that he decided he was not giving his final presentation in my course. Drawing from the models of the founder, my professors, and the dean of SUA, I persuaded him to press forward. He ended up presenting and completing the course. We worked together to prepare him for the teaching test. He passed, finished his last semester, and successfully defended his dissertation, earning his doctorate. He is now a university professor, although, sadly, not in his home country. Interestingly, his final presentation for my course was related to his thesis: Open Educational Resources (OER). In his final semester, I asked him to present to my Afghan associate professors on OER, which are teaching, learning, and research resources, free to be used and repurposed. They are in the public domain or have been released under an open license. Suddenly, the Afghan associate professors, who had so few materials and who even had to pay for any paper copies they made for their students, had a treasure trove. The links of the contributing universities provided access to full courses, materials, textbooks, videos, tests, and software. My former student shared all his information with the Afghan associate professors. These young instructors were able to return to their universities in Afghanistan with this invaluable information to help them teach. The Afghan associate professor whose library was bombed now had a virtual library. My student, this one individual who escaped from being unjustly persecuted by his government, as was Harry Wu, affected how many students’ education and futures in Afghanistan? 

Since graduating from SUA, I have taught English at Soka University of America in Calabasas and Aliso Viejo. I have had Soka University students, Soka Women’s College students, Soka Junior High and High School students, Correspondence students, and Bridge students, those who are preparing to enter the SUA undergraduate program. I recently looked at photos of former students and read heartwarming letters from them. It took me back to a joyful time of students’ growth and laughter, and teachers’ frenzied brainstorming and laughter.  Jack Walker, the director of the English Language Program, and I were always looking for opportunities for the international students to interact with Americans. Jack came up with the idea to have the students interview elderly people to meet Americans and to learn about narrative writing. We had exchanges with American high school students who were studying Japanese. I had the Soka Women’s College students write and draw their impressions in response to the visit to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Museum of Tolerance. “Not only must we learn the truth, but also we need to feel the feelings of the people who lived at that time.” “What I can do is study many kinds of subjects so I can judge something correctly.” This was an opportunity to “distinguish right and wrong.” The students’ work became part of the Multimedia Learning Center at the museum’s library. Also, my Soka University students learned about an act of kindness in which a person was feeling depressed, so a friend called and played piano music. In my class, the students applied this story to a classmate in need of comfort. A student’s mother had died. His classmates chose a song, and one student played the guitar and the others sang. They practiced several times, and then, over the phone, they played their heartfelt music to their grieving classmate. Another act of kindness was done by the Bridge students. They studied Mohammed Yunus, learning about micro-credit loans to poor people. Students contributed a couple of dollars to a small loan to help a woman earn money for her children to attend school. The students joyfully engaged in activities of value creation.

In 1996, I was teaching in the SUA English language program. Daisaku Ikeda visited the Calabasas campus for a few days. Although he had a demanding schedule, he found time to have joyful and carefree interactions with people as he walked around the campus. One day, outside my classroom where I was teaching, Daisaku Ikeda was doing light exercises on the lawn. I heard one of the students gasp, and then, the next thing I knew, all the students had jumped out of their seats and pressed up against the windows to catch a glimpse of their beloved founder. I was affected by the students’ pure delight, and I was moved by their respect and affection for their founder.

During this time, I was taking my job too seriously; there was a heaviness to it. I had allowed the responsibility of teaching to overshadow the joy of teaching. I was taught by Jonathan Epstein that what you teach is you. This being the case, I was not a pleasant teacher to be around. Where was the joy? A friend told me, “You can’t share what you don’t have.” In my heart, I needed to regain that joy in my profession that I had once had. I needed that pure delight that the students had expressed when they saw their founder.

My colleagues and I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Daisaku Ikeda before he left SUA. He shook our hands and told us, “Thank you so much for doing great work. It’s because of your passion.” How humbling. After meeting the founder, I refocused to consistently having a joyful classroom, caring and being there for my students, and holding on to the passion of teaching. The heaviness dissolved, and all was brighter. I saw my students as my children again.

This project in celebration of Soka University of America has refreshed my appreciation of the education I received and the tools I use every day to be a better educator.