Fostering friendships and films from across the globe

What do you do when a pandemic shuts down international travel, and you can’t do your internship in Japan? For MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) students this summer, the answer was the Virtual Language Conversation Exchange with the Tokyo Institute of Technology (also known as Tokyo Tech). MIT Japan’s managing director, Christine Pilcavage, and MIT’s global language senior instructor, Takako Aikawa, collaborated with Professor Eri Ota and Naoko Goto of Center of International Education at Tokyo Tech to create a six-week exchange-style Japanese Language Conversation course. The goal was to bring Japan a little closer to the MIT students and ultimately create a lasting community between the two schools.

The oldest of the MISTI programs, MIT-Japan has been sending MIT students abroad since 1983 to experience Japan’s engineering and science culture first-hand. In a typical summer, the program has 30-40 MIT students interning and conducting research in leading companies, universities, and research organizations across Japan. This year, as Covid-19 crept across the country, MIT suspended international travel and students were informed that their trips would not be taking place as planned. The MIT-Japan students had already shown such a commitment to language and cultural learning, it was clear that keeping the program running in a new way was critical. The result was the Virtual Language Conversation Exchange. “I was heartbroken when we [MIT] had to cancel our summer internship program this year,” says Pilcavage. “I was elated when we were able to create and implement the program this summer, and my students who couldn’t experience Japan this summer could feel a little closer to the country by connecting with the students at Tokyo Tech.”

Seventeen MIT students took part in the language exchange curriculum and were randomly paired with their Tokyo Tech counterparts in similar majors. The exchange took place virtually between the Japanese students based in Tokyo and MIT-Japan students stationed around the world — the United Kingdom, Vietnam, Bahrain, Thailand, and all across the United States. Even with the logistical challenge of straddling so many different time zones, the virtual format proved to make the opportunity more accessible to students, especially during this unconventional summer. “Since it was held online, it was easy for me to join the activity. It was a very good, rare opportunity to meet students from MIT,” shared one of the Tokyo Tech participants. 

The objective was for all of the students to improve their second-language skills, understand different cultures and ideas, and broaden their perspective through the exchange. The entire group joined the first week in a plenary, and then the student pairs met regularly for three weeks, discussing a selected topic in their non-native language. For a final project, teams created a joint video on their chosen theme, with topics including university life, linguistics, music, movies, cooking, and folktales. As the students bonded, they also shared their interests, impressions of Japan, and their plans for the future. “I really enjoyed this program. I made a new friend and talked about various things together,” said one of the Tokyo Tech participants. “I learned not only English vocabulary and grammar — also different cultures and lifestyles. I became more interested in the U.S. and MIT!”

The students watched the video submissions before the final meeting and voted on a favorite. At the end of the six weeks, a compilation video created by the Tokyo Tech instructors was screened by students and instructors who shared feedback about their experiences. “When watching our students’ final project videos, I was so moved and touched by their creativity and passion to learn each other’s culture and language, ” MIT’s Aikawa-sensei comments. “I taught many of the MIT participants ‘in-person’ in the past, and it was such a rewarding experience for me to see their happy and energetic faces, using the Japanese language at this difficult time.”

With the coronavirus continuing to impact countries around the world, Pilcavage says she also sees reasons to remain positive. “Despite the despair, the friendships that developed and flourished in this short time give us much hope. We hope the MIT students will be able to travel to Japan again soon, and we hope to welcome our Tokyo Tech friends to visit our campus.”

Professor Richard Samuels, founder of the MIT-Japan Program and MISTI, agrees. “The videos go a long way toward restoring my confidence in the resilience of young scholars, as well as my hope that we all soon will be able to move beyond the current constraints and directly engage one another as friends and professionals.”