Saturday, May 16, 2009

A review of the Konan University Year in Japan program

I hope that this blog will come up in some google search for someone who is thinking about choosing this program. Obviously they can read any of the other 50+ posts I made during the year but I wanted to write a review of the program as a whole for them.

This program has some strong points and some weak points but it all really depends on what you want out of a study abroad experience that will determine if this is the right one for you.

The amount you pay and receive will vary from year to year but I paid $20,000 for 9 months and 2 semesters worth of credits in Japan. That included my host family, breakfast and dinner every day, 3 big field trips, several smaller field trips, and transportation. I also recieved that Jasso scholarship which gave me a reimbursement of my plane ticket's cost and $800 a month.

Now $20,000 may sound like a lot but think how much tuition and living on a drom would cost at your university. For me when I thought about it that way it didn't seem too expensive for what I was getting. So for the price of the program itself, I think its pretty good (the cost of living abroad is another thing all together)

Konan University is located in Kobe. I really enjoyed Kobe. Most of the people who live here are pretty well off and it is Japan's 8th biggest city so it has a sort of nice clean feeling to most of the areas. Kobe itself doesn't have too many attractions or sightseeing spots but it is under an hour away from Osaka and some where under 90 mins to Kyoto so I feel like you avoid the congestion of those areas but still can go to them any time you want. The weather doesn't get too hot or too cold (Japan in general is worse then you would expect but compared to other parts of Japan I can't complain). Most foreign exchange students want to go to Tokyo, and Tokyo is cool, but living in Tokyo can be kind of hard. As far as location I recommend it.

Now Konan University is a private university so its pretty small. Something like 10,000 students at max. There are only about 6 buildings that are part of the main campus. The school itself is fine but for me it was too small. There weren't any clubs that interested me and just too few students would come into the international room. But the school itself is fine if you are ok with a smaller school.

One of the big things about Konan is the fact that you have to have a host family (unless they get too many people and you get placed in a dorm). With a host family you are living with a complete stranger for 9 months. Some people LOVED their host family experience and really bonded with their host family and they were thought of as a member of their family, and of course their Japanese skyrocketed. Some people got into fights with their host family and got kicked out or had to try and sneak out. We had several cases my year about people changing host families. And then you have people like me who spend 9 months living with someone and never actually completely feel comfortable living there. I really wanted a great host family and instead I got one that is just nice and they give me good food and do my laundry but there is no bond there. I try but I never get a conversation going with them and little things like the way they talk about me really gets on my nerves sometimes. I honestly feel like I got ripped off or cheated by being placed with the family I got. All I can think is how great it would have been if I got a really good match. I guess living a dorm has its own list of complaints so maybe Im blowing the problems of a home stay out of proportions but I really feel that it can be the best thing in the world, the worst thing, or anything in between. And its all by chance too. So as far as home stay is concerned I don't know what exactly to say.

The classes. Here is something that I was not told about during my own orientation for this program, the classes by and large are not good. You have Japanese class mon-fri 2-3 hours then elective classes such as japanese history, japanese cinema, japanese art history, japanese literature, etc... For the Japanese language classes all of the students are divided into 5 levels (A-E) and you have classes with those same people for a year. This is a very flawed system from the start because every college teaches Japanese a completely different way. I have talked to people who studied everything in romanji but had a really strong speaking ability, I met people who knew tons of kanji but couldn't speak very well so most people were placed in a class where one aspect was too hard and one was too easy. An alternative would probably be impractical but I think their system needs some serious attention. Each class then rotated teachers throughout the week. For me that meant I had one day of a really strict teacher, two days of a really really laid back teacher and only two days of a regular teacher. While I would hate having 5 days of the strict or laid back teacher this lead to the class feeling very unbalanced. I've said all of this but the Japanese classes aren't too bad, since I wasn't talking to my host family at home much this was my main Japanese practice. The real issue came in the electives. The teachers are nice people, smart people too but a good amount of them don't know how to run a classroom. I had a history class where we went over pretty much all of Japanese history without a textbook! To add to the confusion the teachers notes weren't really in any order and as I looked over them they didn't make any sense. We had to rely on wikipedia to study for the midterm! There is no clear expectations, for the most part the work load was so lite I felt like I wasn't in college anymore but rather some magical make believe school system. As a whole I did have fun in some classes, I did learn some stuff but I don't think any of these classes would happen at my home university. I think the dean would shut them all down for not being up to standard. So in a nutshell don't expect too much from the classes.

Field trips. When I was going through one of my up and down bits about being homesick what always cheered me up and made me excited about being in Japan was the field trips. I saw some really awesome stuff. Castles, temples, shrines, landmarks, famous scenery, I've seen more then I can count. To experience this much of Japan in a safe and reliable context you can only do it through being a foreign exchange student. Simply put the field trips make it all worth while.

My Japanese still sucks a lot. I thought that I would become fluent by being in Japan for 9 months, that was not the case at all. I didn't talk to my host family much, aside from japanese class everything at school for me was english, and I wasn't really able to make a Japanese social life. I felt that I was in this English bubble and through my Japanese class I did get better for a while but then I kind of hit a plateau. If becoming fluent is the number one goal of yours, I can't recommend this program. Like you'll get better for sure but their is so much english in this program and you are so isolated from the other Japanese students there is no way you can say that this is immersion. If you really have to become fluent, search for a program that places you in Japanese classrooms, if you can be ok with coming back and still having to study a lot before you hold up a normal conversation without feeling dumb, then this program is ok.

Being a foreign exchange student is something I recommend to everyone. You can read about a place, you can visit it on a vacation, but neither of those are like really living there. Everything aspect of living in a foreign culture comes together to be this incredible experience that you will cherish forever. I also think it helps you grow as a person in a way you never could have imagined. Being separated from everything and everyone you know, you find out that you have the power to do anything you want. Because you are thrown out of your comfort zone in the most literal sense and it becomes sink or swim kind of thing. Regardless where you go I recommend to study abroad.

Like I said this program has some ups and downs but in the end it was worth it. As long as you are ok with the randomness of being assigned a host family, silly classes, and not being fluent then go for it!


Unknown said...

Yeah...I had my problems with the Kansai Gaidai program through my university...quite similar to the ones you've expressed here. lol Though unlike you, I had my fair share of trouble with the uni itself... Oops.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your review and I hope that future Konan applicants also read it. That said, many of my experiences at Konan (05-06) were quite different than yours.

I can understand how the host family situation can be disappointing for some. It's like a blind date that you gotta stick with for 9 months. Some people work out well some don't. My host family situation was perfect, and, thankfully, I got to do my own laundry!

During my time there I got a little bit of an insight into the host family situation and I have to say that finding new families and placing the students is the most complicated part of administrating the program.

As far as your critique of your Japanese classes I have to say that no one becomes "fluent" in any language after a 9 month program. So, either you set your expectations to high or were misinformed coming into the program. I seriously doubt the latter however.

I've been in Japan for 6 years now, including my time at Konan and my Japanese radically increased during those 9 months. I was in the lowest level class mind you.

How much you learn in these situations has a lot to do with how you use the time. You say that you were in a very English heavy environment. I would like to ask a few open questions to anyone considering studying abroad or currently at Konan or elsewhere:
Where do you go in your free time?
Who do you hang out with?
Are you making friends with people outside of school?

One of the best things I did during my time in Konan was getting to know the regulars at a local bar and forcing myself to speak Japanese with them and whoever I met on my trips. I rarely went out with the other ryugakusei and often traveled alone meeting people along the way.

My classmates also had the same complaint about their Japanese ability not increasing. They also spent much of their time hanging out with the other ryugakusei speaking English.

It's quite easy to live in that English bubble. It is up to each student to decide how they interact with that bubble.

I'm glad you had a good time overall and hope to see you back in Japan (if you're not still here!)

-David Kawabata
nee David Bower

Konan 05-06

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