STEP Reflection: My Year in Japan

Step Reflection

By: Sarah Flanagan

1)  Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

My STEP Signature project was studying abroad at International Christian University (ICU), in Tokyo, Japan. For 10 months, I immersed myself in Japanese language, society, and culture as I studied about Japan and the Japanese language as well as other topics such as translation and linguistics.

2) What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

I went to Japan thinking that I would become more independent or confident through being on my own in a foreign country. While I do think I had some progress in these departments, they don’t feel like a transformation to me. The biggest change that I found is in my understanding of my limits. Whether they be physical or mental, I have always had a very rational understanding of what I can do, and what I can’t do. I’m rather sorry to say, I think I give up too easily, or at least I did. They say, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” but I really could never consider myself as one of the tough ones, and I was fine with that. It may sound cheesy, but that really did change on my study abroad.

3) What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

Although I attended more classes than can be managed comfortably, the biggest learning experience throughout my stay came to me not through school, but through a club I had joined: the Wondervogel club. In the US, this name sounds German but means nothing, but throughout Japan, many know that it is referring to hiking. I joined this club to be more adventurous and as a means to see more of Japan. I had neither an actual interest in hiking nor the stamina to think that I would stay in the club for long, so it was also more of a whimsical decision. My first hike went quite as imagined. I died on the way up, was okay on the way down, and loved the gorgeous view from the top, making me want to go on another. So I did, to about the same effect. It was the third hike that changed things for me. This hike, instead of one day, lasted for three. If I had thought that I was prepared, I can only say that I was a fool, because about 1 hour into the hike I already felt like I couldn’t continue on. I could hardly imagine hiking until the next break, let alone for the next 3 days. I truly thought I might pass out at any given moment. That day, we hiked together for over 8 hours.

That evening, when we reached the camp site, I felt like I could barely stand. It was already starting to get dark, despite our early start, and we still had to put up our tent, not to mention make and eat dinner. I didn’t even want to stay upright, but I still helped along with the 4 other club members that I was hiking with. Not only was this my first time putting up a tent, it was my first time camping, and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. It felt like ages before we finally crawled in, and to not much relief, considering we were camping on about a foot of snow. The sudden stillness made the chilly air become freezing. The food the club president prepared, Japanese curry, was great but I was almost too tired to eat. That night I slept in a tent barely big enough for the five of us, wearing every article of clothing I had brought along, in a sleeping bag that was just big enough for me to fit in, on a very flat sleeping mat. By the time we had to wake up at 4am, I was tired from lack of sleep, from the previous days efforts, and panicking that I wouldn’t be able to last.

The second day was the same as the first. The third day was also no relief. To make matters worse, the snow was slippery, the paths were sometimes thin with a very scary cliff to one side, and I had fallen landing with my nose on a rock. At this point, you should be wondering either why I put myself through this, or why I’m complaining about it, and that is because I am proud. Even through all of these hardships, I continued to trudge on. I often times would have to go almost into a state of meditation in order to keep pace with the rest of my group, but I still managed. When reaching each peak, I would be rewarded with probably the most stunning views I had ever seen. I also, surprisingly, maintained an upbeat attitude, even mustering the strength to build a snowman on one particularly snowy peak. I learned that even as I reach my physical limits, that I can still continue on, bulldozing past them. I also learned, that it’s impossible to break these limits alone. I know because I’ve tried. A beautiful view is not enough to torture myself, and certainly not enough to do it more than once. I am proud to say that I went on 3 or 4 more multi-day hikes after this one. The comradery, the beauty, and the satisfaction of these hikes make them well-worth it.

Although hiking was only one tiny aspect of my study abroad, and not even my reason for going, it taught me the most out of all my activities. I think I can confidently say that this is the first time I have ever truly surpassed what I imagined as my own limit. I not only hiked for over 24 hours in the span of three days, I also kept pace with my fellow hikers. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was true torture to me for at least 18 of those hours. This hike was not only a physical battle, but a mental one as well. During those 18 hours, I had many betraying thoughts of giving up, of thinking that I couldn’t take even one more step forward, but even these I managed to subdue by the last day. I was even smiling through the exhaustion! I proved to myself those three days, that limits are meant to be broken.

4) Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

Of course, limits are not the only thing I learned about throughout this trip, but I think it was the most important lesson to me, and the biggest help to my future. It’s one thing to say that you will give 110%, it’s another entirely to actually give it. I can say with confidence that I gave 125% in those three days. Having experienced the pain, but also the rewards, I know that I can continue to do this in the future when something really matters to me. I have big dreams that I want to fulfill, and now I am finally one of the tough ones who will “get going.” Some day in the future, my AI technology will be helping language learners everywhere with their pronunciation and as a speaking partner. It won’t be easy, and I no longer need it to be. I am ready for the challenge.






For a more interesting read, and probably less meaningful one, try visiting my blog,

There aren’t many posts, but there are a lot more pictures to enjoy, and lots of sarcasm in a hopefully funny and enjoyable way.

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