Beyond the Paper Screen / Teaching first-year students reminds me of my own journey to college

It was a long journey indeed. I was starting a semester in the U.S., along with 14 other exchange students. Our flight out of Tokyo was delayed for four hours, and when the 10-hour flight dropped us off in Seattle, we had long missed our connection to Portland, our final destination. We spent what seemed like hours in the underground immigration area, got booked onto another flight and finally came up on a frighteningly long escalator. By then, the late afternoon sun was beaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the domestic terminal. I saw people walking by, sitting on a bench and standing in line. With the glaring sun behind them, they only looked like funny-looking shadows in my eyes.

This fall, I’m teaching a first-year seminar to help new students make the transition from high school to college. In the first few weeks of the semester, I plan to get to know them, lay the groundwork for future academic growth and watch them go through this period of adjustment. Just thinking about it brought back memories of my own long and turbulent transition to college.

I was never brave enough to be a delinquent, but I was a consummate slacker in high school. I studied as little as possible without getting into trouble. When I was urged to join an extracurricular activity, I went with flower arrangement because it involved the least amount of effort in my mind. When the time came in my third year to make concrete college plans, I didn’t know what to do. There was no subject I wanted to study, nor a career path I wanted to pursue. I just knew that four more years of school would be a serious drag, so, I chose the option that required the least amount of effort once again. My grades were good enough for me to enroll in a two-year dental hygienist program, at the end of which I would be pretty much guaranteed a decent job.

While my more ambitious peers studied day and night to get into their top colleges of choice, I didn’t have much to do in the last few months of my final year of high school. I would have wasted it if I hadn’t met my English teacher Mrs. Natsume. She loved teaching and learning English. Mrs. Natsume would meet with a small group of students outside of regular classes to read about the culture in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries.

She also created opportunities for us to interact with native English speakers so we could use our language skills in real-life situations. That is when I discovered how exciting it is to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds and realized how English could exponentially expand my horizons. I was mediocre at best in the classroom, but I became one of the most enthusiastic students in her “living English” group.

However, I already knew that my growing interests came too late in Japan’s rigid educational system, which didn’t allow for any changes at such a late stage. In the spring, I started the dental hygienist program as planned and slipped right back into slacker mode. I got through the first year of classes in biology, biochemistry, clinical studies, etc. with minimal effort and even less enthusiasm.

In the second year, clinical hours started. We first practiced cleaning each other’s teeth and then moved on to actual patients who volunteered to work with dental hygienist students.

During a cleaning, I was looking into the wide-open mouth of my patient. Cleaning teeth is detailed and tedious work, especially when the patient has not been taking care of them very well. I was trying to get to a hard-to-reach area of his mouth, and a thought suddenly popped into my mind.

“I can’t do this for the rest of my life!”

Excuse my language, but epiphanies are a bitch. The only way for me to change course was to retake the college entrance exam and get admitted to an English degree program as a first-year student. But how could I afford four more years of college tuition? Then, I found out that a university near my home offered a fellowship program that would pay for my tuition in full. Everyone who learned of my plan thought I had lost my marbles, except for Mrs. Natsume, who told me what books to study for the entrance exam.

For the next three months, I did something I had never done in my life: Give everything I had to get something I really wanted. To my surprise, I passed the exam and was admitted into the fellowship program. I convinced my parents to let me continue living at home for free, found a part-time job at a dentist’s office and started college all over again as an English major. I had no way of knowing then that a semester in the U.S. would change the course of myalife. I was just excited to take a big step toward my goal of becoming a high school English teacher.

I look at 16 faces in my classroom. They come from different cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic standing; they each have different personalities, personal and academic interests, and future goals and dreams. Wherever they came from and wherever they are headed, I hope they, too, find something that’s worth investing every bit of their effort in and get a chance to make something of it. Because I believe, from my own experience, that’s what college is really about.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.