Though we may only have a few classes together, international and non-international students can always spot each other on campus. For international students at UTokyo, what are their motives for studying abroad, and what kind of life do they experience? To get to know more about them, we asked Ms. Tomoko Sonoda, who works for International Students’ Advisory Room at Komaba, to tell us about international student support and their environment.
（Covered by Xianshang Gu）
International Students’ Advisory Room at Komaba: providing supports correspondingly for all kinds of international students
──What kind of supports are you providing for international students, and in what ways do you provide them?
We provide counseling to international students at Komaba I Campus. We talk mainly about their studies and finance, and also a variety of topics such as personal relationship, health, and daily life. Other than counseling, we recruit tutors with the International Students Section and match them with each international student. Last but not least, we help students with registering for scholarships and provide supplementary Japanese lessons.
Since there are many kinds of international students ranging from first year undergraduate to Ph.D. students on Komaba campus, we discuss a wide variety of topics. For example, a topic specific to undergraduate students at Junior Division is “shingaku （choosing their faculty for Senior Division）”. Students who enrolled with special testing for international students have their shingaku-saki （the faculty they will go to for Senior Division） determined at the time of their enrollment, but it is not rare that as they attend classes, they feel lost and unsure about their original shingaku-saki. Considering that this type of consultation has a huge impact on a student’s studies and career, we arrange multiple consultations with the help of professors from Academic Guidance Center, and lead students to a conclusion that is the best for them.
Counselng is mostly done in Japanese. This is because most students who come to study at College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences understand Japanese well. In recent years, the number of international students in courses that only uses English, such as PEAK （Programs in English at Komaba） or exchange programs （students who come to study at Komaba only for one semester or year）, are increasing. Still, since PEAK students have their own academic advisor, they do not usually use the Advisory Room. On the other hand, International Education Support Office Komaba Branch also provide counselors who speak English for consultation and support. However, if there are urgent circumstances that require support in languages other than English or Japanese, we would ask help from Hongo’s International Student Support Room or professors on Komaba Campus. Nevertheless, we would like you to think of Advisory Room as a place where everyone, whether an international student at Komaba or non-international student/professors associated with international students, can use.
──What is Advisory Room’s role for International Students?
We want to be a place for students to not only consult on their concerns, but also to collect information, relax, think about life, and spill out insecurities and complains. Overall, we want to be a place that provides a sense of belonging and secureness for international students.
On the other hand, as there are many student support associations in UTokyo, we think that it is important to quickly connect students to most appropriate place when necessary.
There are three things we care about the most when it comes to supporting international student. Firstly, to provide preventive support. Student support is divided into three stages: preventive, consultation, and emergency. It is the best that we can stop problem from aggravating at the preventive stage and avoid crisis. For example, we do guidance sessions and orientations, organize meeting with all students, and arrange tutors for them.
Secondly, to improve accessibility. We want to be a place where students can visit easily when they run into troubles in the long period of time they study in Japan. We are putting effort into public relations on our homepage, and providing information through mailing list.
Lastly, to help international students eventually be fine with not using Advisory Room. Even though it is necessary to create a welcoming environment where anyone can visit at any time, we are mostly happy to see students becoming able to manage their university life independently.
──What are the changes in number, contents, and format of counseling due to the COVID-19?
There were a total of 495 consultation cases in 2020. Due to the COVID-19, although there is not a change in number of students in undergraduate and PEAK courses, number of graduate or research students shows a sign of decline, and there are many international students attending classes from abroad, still unable to come to Japan.
The International Students’ Advisory Room started trials of online consultation in February 2020. As a result, consultation cases increased because it became possible to consult using Zoom or email. Although it was convenient that our support became more accessible, it was harder to communicate accurately and quickly on email. Therefore, it probably was difficult for both students and counselor. Also, as there are students who do not want to show their face during online consultation, it is difficult to see the student’s condition through their facial expression and mood. Still, we wish to take advantage of Web consultation in the future as well.
With COVID-19 spreading, both international and non-international students had similar concerns. For example, there are problems such as insecurity towards the pandemic, financial difficulties due to unemployment, or becoming distant with their friends. Some people may struggle to stay motivated for online classes, while others enjoy the online classes rather pleasantly.
──Comparing to non-international students, what are some problems that international students are more likely to face?
Management of the status of residence is one of the biggest issues. In Junior Division there is a possibility of grade retention in 2S and 2A semester; therefore, there are many consultations on residential status during this period. Grade retention can greatly influence the lives of international students as they have to submit additional documents when renewing their status. As there are international students who do not know this, we explain it carefully in guidance sessions, and prioritize consultations related to it.
The number of consultations on residential status has risen prominently from 2019 due to COVID-19. As the Japanese government repeatedly changed their measures, students faced problems with new entry or re-entry to Japan from their home countries. Although this can be irrelevant to Japanese students, it is a matter of prime importance for international students. Even though there was a limit on what we could do from the university side, we put effort into collecting accurate information, and while keeping in touch closely with students overseas, we continued our support to prevent anything from happening that hinders international students’ studies.
──How do you wish the interaction between international and non-international students to be?
As the International Students’ Advisory Room, we are very happy to see that there are students who wishes to get in touch with international students. There are many ways to do it. For example, you can register as GO tutor (student tutors recruited by the Globalization Office to help international students with their studies and daily life) or one-to-one tutor. It is also good to attend events or programs for global interaction that are posted on Global Komaba’s homepage. As there are now online interaction programs hosted by Hongo’s International Student Support Room and events in Komaba are mostly held online in both Japanese and English, we encourage students to join them.
Depending on what kind of programs the international students belong to, their opportunities to interact with non-international students can vary. Some people do not intend to seek the chance for interaction with non-international students since they already have friends in classes or daily activities, while others have a limited chance to get in touch with non-international students since they only attend classes designed for international students. It will be helpful if non-international students can get to know about different kinds of programs.
――Sometimes non-international students are called “Todai-sei (UTokyo students)” or “Ippan-sei (normal students)”, what is International Students’ Advisory Room’s opinion on these words?
In particular, I personally feel that “ippan-sei” is a very strange term. Still, since words can cause a great influence on people, I think there is a room for improvement if international students feel uncomfortable with it. Also, as there can be many Japanese students who do not know how international students feel, the opportunity for mutual understanding is very important.
I feel that diversity is urgently needed for University of Tokyo right now. Although studying abroad can be a wonderful experience, it would be very helpful for us if students can get to know about international students around them, understand each other’s way of thinking and culture, and become good friends with one another.
See here for homepage of International Students’ Advisory Room
See here for more information on Special Screening Tests for students graduated from high schools abroad (in Japanese only)
See here for more information on USTEP
See here for more information on KOMSTEP
See here for more information on PEAK