This summer, Josh Turskey participated in the Helio program in Japan, a partnership between College of the Atlantic and Ashoka U. The University of Maryland is an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus and had the opportunity to send one special student on the program to think like an entrepreneur in the higher education industry on a small island in Japan. Our Changemaker Campus designation is led by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.
by: Josh Turskey
For an architecture major, I have not traveled many places. I’ve been to Ohio countless times, and traveling to southern Canada is not much different than the landscape of America. With really only one trip out of the continent under by belt, I nervously boarded my flight from Tokyo to Hiroshima not knowing exactly if I was on the right plane.
Upon reaching the Island of Osakikamijima, a small island near Hiroshima City, we were given our mission: My peers and I were to begin critically thinking and laying out the ground work for what a college on the island would look like. We were split into groups to gather information and make recommendations on different pieces of the potential college. Groups focused on agriculture, food systems, sustainability, waste management and urban planning. My peers were from all over the world including Japan, Canada, Ethiopia, Ireland, England and all across the United States.
The island of Osakikamijima once held two of the largest ports in Japan and has a thriving cultural history. Once massive steel cargo ships became popular in the late twentieth century, the island’s economy suffered as the shipyards and manufacturing plants grew outdated, and the island lost jobs and people quickly. My group specifically focused on community planning and working to engage the future college students with community members. We also brainstormed ideas to figure out how we could get outside businesses to start and stay on the island, a key factor for a thriving higher education ecosystem. We discussed potential building sites for the college, current schools on the island, the physical design of the college as well as programs to make sure students were involved in the island culture.
Over the course of a week, we put on our customer discovery hats and interviewed over twenty islanders. This is where we ran into problems. First, we learned that the townspeople thought it would be rude to talk negatively about the college plans to us, which made it hard to get useful information. Second, in Japan it is impolite to discuss finances, business and the economy with strangers, especially out of the correct setting. Third, the islanders have a different way of communicating ideas and answering questions. In America we usually start answering a question with the main idea and follow it with supporting details and examples. In Japan it is more customary to only give the supporting details and allow the interviewer to form their own conclusions and opinions. While this may sound more pleasant, without knowing this at the time our team grew more and more frustrated thinking that people were not answering our questions or not answering them honestly. The bluntness of American culture was on full display, and we tried to be more culturally sensitive before getting frustrated.
People on the island told us they wanted a college that would fully engage the community. While there, we noticed that the current schools on the island are very plain in color (a lot of neutral-toned cement) and often have a huge barbed wire fence around it. What struck us more was that the fence usually only covers three sides of the school. A local architect told us that this is customary to make sure the school is an area of education without distraction and was not a form of security. To the people there, the fence defined the school. To an outsider, the building looked more like a prison, which presented us with a problem. How do we design a college that acts and behaves in the way the island and potential students would favor?
We developed two programs for the future college which we presented to island locals and government officials. The first was an island buddy system that directly translated to “island family program” where students would be paired with island families to build relationships. The student would live on campus, but have a host family that they could go to festivals with, have dinner with, explore the nearby islands with and so forth. The second program was entitled the “Osakikamijima Community Innovation Center”, which is a program where students and local business leaders can come together to exchange ideas and learn from each other. We wanted outside companies to see that Osakikamijima was a place their business could thrive and that they could bring jobs to the island. Finding a way to discuss this without using the words “business” or “economy” made our jobs tricky. Instead, we conveyed that we wanted outsiders to invest in the people here and build their homes on an island known for its beauty.
The entire trip was a learning experience. I knew very little Japanese going into the trip and had never eaten seafood before. I was very thankful to at least have rice at every meal, as I learned seafood is not something I particularly like, which I embarrassingly shouted out to the whole group in an exercise. Outside of our work, we rowed on Japanese pirate boats and jumped into jellyfish-infested waters. We hiked to the tallest peak on the island and I was completely overcome by the beauty of it all. There were a lot of firsts: from eating a baby octopus to having to read instructions on how to use a toilet, the trip pushed me out of my comfort zone in a great way. Most of all I learned to work with people. When you throw 24 student leaders from around the world together and allow them to make decisions on their own on where to guide the program, it can get difficult. I learned that starting something new in a different culture is incredibly hard. I learned how to communicate with people from different backgrounds, how to make decisions as a group and not as a leader, and how to not get frustrated when we don’t see eye-to-eye after a very long day. Maybe most importantly, I learned how to listen to others with intent and honest appreciation. I’ll never forget the people I met on the trip, and I hope one day I can meet them there again