My STEP Signature Project was a “May-mester” study abroad to Japan with the College of Public Health. This two and a half week study abroad included visiting multiple cities in Japan learning all about Japanese public health initiatives and how Japan has become one of the most successful countries in the world in regards to life expectancy and healthcare. The first week and a half we attended classes at two different universities in Tokyo and learned about different public health challenges Japan faces, and the last week of the study abroad we went to different cities to learn about their respective health issues and what was done to aid them, such as learning about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its health and historical effects on the nation.
During my time in Japan I became a much more empathetic person and learned that it is extremely important to look at an issue within the context of other cultures, whether it be historical, political, related to public health, or any issue at all. Having never spent a long time abroad in a culture different than my own, I would approach things from a singular, upper-middle class and white American standpoint and at times would not understand or empathize with people outside of my culture as easily or readily. Going to Japan and meeting many amazing people while learning about public health issues that the country had to face in the past, some due to the Japanese and American conflict during World War II made me realize that I need to be much more critical in my thoughts on the United States. The United States has much to learn about public health systems, and this study abroad transformed me into realizing just how important it is to look to other countries while trying to improve your own.
Before beginning this study abroad I only knew of Japan from history classes and popular culture. While I had learned of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, I had never fully understood the after-effects of the bombing and amount of human suffering that occurred. My view of the historical event became much more real as I walked around the city of Hiroshima and saw old buildings that had survived the bombing, and photos of people who had been killed or maimed on that day. Reading journals of children who had been hurt or died and listening to the survivors’ video accounts of the day at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was one of the most profound experiences in my life. It has encouraged me to share more about the dangers of war and nuclear weapons and become an advocate for peace right here in Ohio. My views of world international relations have changed and now I pay much more attention to news nuclear threats globally. I gained a much stronger sense of empathy during my two day stay at Hiroshima, and have transformed into realizing that no matter what the situation may be it is important to protect the health of innocent people anywhere around the world.
My views of public health also transformed and grew during my study abroad to Japan. While every country faces different public health threats and issues, I learned there is also much similarity. We learned of Itai-Itai disease in the city of Toyama, a large cadmium poisoning in the waters of the area that killed and severely debilitated many women in the 1940s and 1950s. While the actual disease is different than instances of public health disasters in the United States, there are many parallels between the case of Itai-Itai disease and the Flint water crisis. I’ve discovered that there is much the United States can learn from how other countries deal with these massive outbreaks and that if we used the model the Japanese government took with ending the cadmium poisoning of waterways in Toyama and applied it to Flint, the benefits could be extraordinary. I had always assumed that the United States had a robust and world leading public health program, but through my time in Japan I changed my mind, and now believe we have much to learn from others to continue to improve ourselves.
Another aspect of the study abroad that led to a transformation in myself were the friends I made, both the Ohio State students who I joined on the program and the Japanese college students I met while attending lectures at universities in Tokyo. Most of my friends at Ohio State University are not in a health-related major, so it was an amazing experience to be able to share two and a half weeks with students who have similar interests in public health as me. The bonds I formed with these students became incredibly strong although our time together was rather short. Speaking with Japanese students gave me a great insight into how our cultures are both similar and different, and I loved hearing their perspectives on public health. I was able to learn from everyone I met and gather different outlooks on what public health means and what we can do to improve population health across the world.
This change is valuable in my life for academic, career, and personal reasons. Academically I was able to learn from Japanese professors and experts about different health systems and challenges that I would not have been able to experience at Ohio State. I was able to visit a nursing home and attend a lecture from a professor of nursing about Japan’s struggle with the aging population and high demand for nursing homes and elderly care. It was great to learn about this from somebody who actually lives it, as opposed to learning about it from a removed situation in a classroom in Ohio. Career-wise the study abroad has helped me to hone my interests in public health and what I plan to do for graduate school and moving into a career. I would like to work in health services research and learn how to improve healthcare in the United States, keeping in mind the concepts I learned in Japan, as well as making sure to look to other well-performing countries to improve our own American system. Personally, I believe this study abroad has changed the way I view public health and has made me a more independent and confident person. Living in a foreign country where I spoke very little of the language forced me to become a problem-solver in daily life and gain confidence in my ability to live outside of my comfort zone. My time in Japan is something I will never forget and cherish for the rest of my life. I grew and transformed in many ways and believe I have become a better-rounded individual from the experience.
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