‘Where Diversity Meets Learning’ – Reporting from HLAB 2016

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Towards the end of Trinity term 2016, the two of us received a slightly strange email to the OxStu Editor gmail account, from a man who introduced himself as follows – ‘My name is Keisuke Saito, from the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan.’ Spam alert – so we thought. But as we read on, we realised that this was serious. Mr Saito extended to us an invitation ‘to write an article and/or produce a video in Japan as a journalist for the HLAB summer school taking place in August 2016 [11th-28th]’, offering to pay all of our travel and accommodation for the trip. It was an offer we could not refuse.

Performers at the talent show, HLAB Tokushima
Students performing at the talent show, HLAB Tokushima

HLAB was founded in 2011 by university students from Japan and the United States, those in the US being predominantly from Harvard – a link that remains strong to this day. It stands for ‘Hub for Liberal Arts Beyond Borders’; the primary mission of the programme is to bring the benefits of a residential liberal arts education, together with a system of peer mentoring, to Japanese high school students – the high-schoolers are mentored by professional speakers, university students (both international and Japanese), and the schoolmates with whom they experience the programme. Beyond this central goal, HLAB also aims to provide ‘opportunities for talented non-Japanese students to explore Japan through educational tourism’, and to encourage university students to interact with those younger than themselves and with local communities through education.

Over the two weeks of the programme, the high-school students choose to explore topics that interest them in ‘seminars’ curated and taught by international students in cooperation with Japanese university students who translate and clarify their ideas. The seminars are taught in intimate groups, usually around five students, such that every student has a chance to contribute to the discussion; topics at this year’s summer school included ‘Computational Thinking’, ‘The Tale of Genji’, and ‘Economics – from Abe to J-Pop’. Students also have the opportunity, at a forum at the start of the programme, to hear talks from eminent professionals on the theme of ‘What I wish I’d known when I was at high school’ – past speakers have included the CEOs of large Japanese companies Lawson and UNIQLO – and to meet traditional craftsmen and engage in cultural workshops, such as Japanese lantern-makers and tea ceremony practitioners, depending on the area in which they are staying.

Past speakers have included the CEOs of Japanese companies Lawson and UNIQLO

The mentorship side of the programme is delivered through the organisation of high school students and seminar leaders (‘SLs’) into houses, with a house leader (‘HL’) being appointed to work with students in delivering seminars and the other parts of their role. One of the most important elements of the house organisation comes in the form of reflection sessions held at the end of the day where high school students can speak with mentors and each other about anything that they have learned or wish to talk about. These sessions are intended to help the students to open up and connect with each other at a deeper level than one might expect would be possible over only two weeks. The cathartic power they seem to unlock was perhaps reflected in the emotion with which we heard the high-school students, and indeed also some of the university students, describe their experience at the closing ceremonies for each programme – few if any were dry-eyed.

With big sponsors like Mitsubishi and Asahi, and mentions in well-known publications like The Economist and the Japan Times, HLAB has developed rapidly since its foundation, moving beyond its Tokyo base to Obuse (est. 2013),  Tokushima (2014), and Tohoku (2015); it still looks to be growing apace. We (the journalist team) were split up on two itineraries in our shadowing of the programme, with Scott following the Obuse itinerary, while Sam went to Tohoku and Tokushima. We found each branch of the programme to be distinctive, so we thought it would be worth giving a flavour of each.

HLAB Onagawa students show what they've learned about spiders...
HLAB Onagawa students show what they’ve learned about spiders…

The Tohoku programme is held in the striking locale of Onagawa, a tiny fishing town which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Its phenomenal recovery from that disaster inspired this other piece – http://oxfordstudent.com/2016/10/07/resilience-japan-reflections-onagawa/. The HLAB programme was held here in the El Faro hotel, a technicolor trailer park complex up in the Onagawa mountains, built in 2012, a year after the disaster. The colours seemed an apt metaphor for the diversity that is so central to the HLAB approach (‘where diversity meets learning’ is the HLAB motto).

Here we saw, among other things, a Harvard student discussing ‘The World of Spiders’ – from their biochemistry and biophysics to their importance in the global ecosystem and in world culture – a future Google employee from Rice University teaching about computer algorithms and artificial intelligence, and a Dutch student showing students how to build and control a robot. Elsewhere, casually spread out on beds and sofas, high school students reflected on world peace and revolution, and on Japanese literature and art.

Presentations about the tsunami and Onagawa’s revitalization efforts were held in the Future Centre in central Onagawa, while students also enjoyed flatlining, bathing at the station’s Onsen, and exploring the town’s modest central arcade. Students also displayed their special skills at a talent show in the centre of town, with a wide array of stand-up comedy, martial arts, and musical stylings all on offer.

The view from Mugi nature house
The view from Mugi nature house

A not much less isolated and rural community is the base of operations for HLAB Tokushima – the small town of Mugi, with a population of around 5,500. Here the students were accommodated in Mugi Nature House, an old converted leisure centre with a swimming pool, right by the sea, while seminars and cultural activities were held at the Culture Centre in the middle of town, a large building festooned with HLAB photos and art for the duration of the two weeks.

Hand-crafted Andon lanterns by night
Hand-crafted Andon lanterns by night

At the Culture Centre, students were taught by craftsmen from Akatari, a local Mugi community group which aims to preserve traditional Japanese culture in Mugi, how to make traditional Japanese lanterns, and designed paper coverings for them with Japanese calligraphy and art. They were also taught by tea masters from the Urasenke school about the history of the tea ceremony, and given a professional demonstration of it, before learning from some chefs how to make wagashi, or traditional Japanese tea sweets. Students were also taken snorkeling and taken on a cultural trip to Tebajima island. After yet another talent show, and even more elaborate dance routines, here we witnessed the Tokushima closing ceremony, where the university students presented the high-schoolers with their certificates, and many (if not all) shed tears after the emotional week they had had.

Students and HLAB staff singing at the camp in Obuse
Students and HLAB staff singing at the camp in Obuse

Demonstrating the best of the local areas in which the summer school is being held is an important element of the programme, introducing Japan to many of the university students from abroad who are visiting for the first time and offering high school students the opportunity to try their hand at activities that they may not have tried before. Hosting a summer school is therefore also something that matters a lot to the local area. Such was the case in Obuse, a town in Nagano prefecture in the middle of the country of around 11,000 people, where the summer school was planned with the full cooperation of the local education board. Students’ residential halls were situated within the town hall with these same facilities also providing space for seminars and activities in the day.

Students took part in a wide range of activities including dance workshops, local crafts, games and singing. Local people organised a party to see off the students and helped to lead many of the activities that the students took part in, delicious BBQ food was provided free of charge alongside drinks and dessert. Participants had the opportunity to wear traditional dress and there was a disco and raffle. From the raffle the media team each managed to win a prize that was donated from each person taking part in HLAB Obuse – the pick of these prizes was the spectacle of Scott winning a Columbia University notebook in rural Japan. After a tiring week and the closing ceremony, the university student helpers were treated to an evening at a local winery overlooking the hills with complementary drinks and excellent food.

A view through Tokyo
A view through Tokyo

The Tokyo programme, the flagship, hub, and largest of the four summer schools, we only passed through in the middle of our journey; we did not sit in on many seminars and cultural activities. Here, more than at the other HLAB locations, the residential facilities were quite traditional, as the Tokyo summer school was held at Homeikan, a traditional inn near to Tokyo University. As in Onagawa, the rooms where the students were housed were also used by day for seminars and teaching. The traditional space contrasted strikingly with the attempt to introduce more of an American-style liberal arts thinking into the education of Japanese youngsters.

Together with the other closing ceremonies we saw, the Tokyo closing ceremony revealed that the programme had left quite a mark on both the university and high school students. Many of the high school students stated that they were now thinking about their future quite differently following their week at HLAB. Many said that they now planned to focus on a wide range of subjects going to university and that they no longer felt bound by any decisions that they would take now. For others it had left them feeling able to make mistakes and accept their flaws. The students we met were full of ambition and idealism, like for example Sakumi Kawamoto, who aspires to become an international journalist so that she can help to create a world in which information is freely available and uncontrolled by governments – a quality she thinks is lacking in East Asia at the moment.

Sakumi Kawamoto, aspiring journalist
Sakumi Kawamoto, aspiring journalist

One high school student gave an emotional testimony where they talked about bullying at school that had resulted in them being unable to attend for five years: taking part in the HLAB programme had allowed them to meet a group of people ith whom they felt comfortable, and from the experience they would take friends and lessons for life. The ties between participants are intended to be long-lasting, with a person in each house nominated to help participants stay in touch, and many do – past high school students have returned as university students or become involved in the administration side. Only two people work at HLAB permanently, while the rest are summer staff and volunteers. The fact that they still manage to pull it off every year seems a testament to how much love the programme inspires.

Oxford student and HLAB Seminar Leader Callum Hughes
Oxford student and HLAB Seminar Leader Callum Hughes

One of the students involved in HLAB this year was from Oxford, Callum Hughes, a third year student at Balliol College studying Maths – a solitary Brit in a sea of Americans (mostly from Harvard and Columbia). Asked about his experiences of the programme, he said, “I found HLAB to be a very enriching experience. During the programme we explored the stunning scenery of Tokushima, took part in an Awadori dance festival, and sampled much of the amazing local cuisine. Teaching a seminar in a field I am passionate about to the most eager of students was incredibly fun and we all learned so much from the process.”

For the university students helping, HLAB seemed like quite a good deal, with seminars offering a unique opportunity to teach and lead discussion on a topic of their choice, usually something related to their major, before guiding their students towards a presentation of their own thoughts on the topic. The peer-mentoring side of their role took up most of their time, with most having to be available for activities and discussion, including those cathartic ‘reflection’ sessions, until around midnight. Yet all of the university students we spoke to were glad to have participated, and felt genuinely invested in the futures of the high-school students whom they had mentored.

That said, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses all the way. It was clear that after only a week, both university and high school students were drained. Some of the international university students felt frustrated at the extent to which the Japanese students were determined to supervise them, even to the point of going with them to the supermarket or down to the beach; some were frustrated with the general disorganization and miscommunication, as for example in a kerfuffle about where people could leave their luggage on the last day in Tokyo; at the workshop held to seek improvements following the summer school, some helpers raised the workload as an issue and felt that free time should have been better managed. Those running the programme took these concerns on board, and acknowledged that the whole development of the summer school has been one of trial and error. After all, it is easy to forget that this was only the sixth year HLAB has been running – but it seems to be moving in the right direction.

All in all, it would be hard to deny that as the HLAB ‘media team’, with our costs of accommodation and travel covered by the Prime Minister’s Office, and with minimal obligations besides producing our final content, we were getting an easier deal than the students who were themselves involved in the programme, teaching and mentoring the high-schoolers. However, watching the love they felt for each other and for the students with whom they built relationships (reflected in the lovingly edited videos we saw at all of the closing ceremonies) it was equally hard not to envy the opportunity they had been given, and to feel a little tempted to apply to enter this tight-knit little universe for a few weeks next August. Maybe next year someone will be writing an article about us….

This piece was a result of an innovative, intellectual, and far-reaching journalistic experiment: 10 foreign student journalists, invited by the Prime Minister’s office and hosted by the HLAB summer school, sought to explore and illuminate Japan over a span of 19 days. Our projects eventually spanned topics ranging from Japanese views of success and failure to the robust Japanese artisan culture. See some of the other pieces here







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