“Go and find out what you want to do with your life.” That’s what my parents said to me when I set off to study in the U.S.

In the spring of 2009, I graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University in New York. But what exactly did I do during my time abroad and what did I gain from the experience? Looking back on those four years, I realize that I was “searching for myself” the entire time.

My journey to find myself actually started when I was in high school.

Process Leading up to College Admission

From elementary school through high school, I attended the local public schools. At the time I just assumed that was the right thing for me to do. At the end of my second year of high school, it also seemed like a matter of course that I would attend a university in Japan.

Ayumi Ode (at left)

It was at the beginning of my third year in high school that I started to think about going to an American university. The Tokyo metropolitan high school I was attending started an international exchange program when I was in my second year of high school. At that time, I had begun to feel really stifled in my current situation and was starting to develop an interest in the world. I wasn’t particularly good at English and I had never been overseas before, but I had a gut feeling that I didn’t want to just keep plodding along on the same path.

One day around that time my mother came home from a PTA meeting and showed me a handout she had received on the school’s international exchange program. The school was apparently planning to invite a number of American high school students to Japan as exchange students and was recruiting families to host them. The Japanese students in the host families would be eligible to participate in a home stay program in the U.S. the following year. “Should we sign up to be a host family?” asked my mother. Since I was just starting to think about going abroad, my answer was a resounding “YES.”

The exchange student that came to stay with us was a beautiful blonde girl named “Becky,” who was born and raised in a suburb of Seattle in Washington State. Even though we only hosted her for 10 days, it was a huge event for our family. We were thrown into a state of panic on more than one occasion because of our lack of English ability. It was the first time for both me and my family to have a cross-cultural experience.

Then a year after Becky stayed at our house, I went to the U.S. to stay at Becky’s house. Although she had already told me that her house was in the mountains, I was amazed when I saw the place in real life. The house really was in the mountains. I commuted to the local high school for 10 days by car with Becky. The school was a one-story building with a backdrop of mountains, and almost all of the students were white. I felt like I had suddenly entered a different world from the one where I was born and raised in Tokyo. Although I still couldn’t speak English, I realized at that point that “the world is a big place and I want to see more of it.” When I returned to Japan, I made a decision that took my parents completely by surprise – I was going to study at an American university.

The first question my parents asked was: “Will you be able to get into an American university even though your English ability isn’t very good?” I found out about the option of attending a community college by searching the Internet and attending information sessions at preparatory schools for study abroad programs. Community colleges are two-year colleges that have extensive ESL programs, so even students with limited English ability can get into them. I also found out that it’s possible to transfer to a highly selective four-year university if you have an excellent academic record from a community college. I decided to go to a community college in California because I had heard that the number of students transferring from community colleges in California to UC Berkeley and UCLA was particularly high. The two major cities in California are Los Angeles and San Francisco. I had visited both cities after my home-stay in the U.S. and liked the atmosphere in San Francisco best, so I decided to choose a community college in the San Francisco area. I was able to obtain a lot of information on colleges from the Internet and various publications, but when it came time to make a final decision I actually went to check out several colleges in person together with my mother.

The idea of actually going to the colleges to see them in person didn’t occur to me until my father made the suggestion: “You should go and take a look at the colleges before you make a decision.” So in the winter of my third year in high school, I narrowed my choices down to around four or five schools and then my mother and I set off for San Francisco. While we were there, we asked a local tour guide to drive us around to visit the colleges.

I’m really grateful to my father for suggesting that I go check out the colleges in person. It was such a good idea. By visiting the colleges, I was able get a feel for the atmosphere of both the colleges and the students there, and also get a firsthand look at various aspects such as the local neighborhoods, living conditions, and safety issues before moving overseas on my own for the first time. In the end, I decided on a community college that had a nice atmosphere and was located in a neighborhood that seemed like a comfortable place to live.

As the time drew closer for me to live abroad for the first time, I felt both excited and nervous as I began to realize that going away to college overseas would be a major turning point in my life. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen and I couldn’t imagine what I would be doing four years later. Nevertheless, I was somehow convinced that I had made the right decision. I think I knew I had chosen a path that would lead me to a brighter future rather than just trying to escape from my current situation. I hadn’t really thought much about what I wanted to do after graduating from a top American university, but I guess I just had a feeling that it would open up a wide variety of options that I couldn’t begin to fathom at that point. I made up my mind to work hard for four years for the sake of my own future, and made a pact with myself before I departed to the U.S. to pour all of my energy into transferring to a top university. When my parents said to me, “Go and find out what you want to do with your life,” that became my goal for my entire four years of studying abroad. On May 21, 2005, I said goodbye to my friends and family as I set off to achieve that goal on my journey to find myself.

Life at Community College

During my entire time at community college, the only thing on my mind was transferring to a four-year university. Before I entered community college, I spent three months at a language school near San Francisco and during that time I was constantly worrying about whether I would be able to get good grades at community college. I kept telling myself as I studied that I had to get straight A’s. My friends would actually say to me, “You shouldn’t study any more. You study way too much.” I studied wherever I went and I hardly ever did anything for fun.

Ayumi’s dance class at community college in California

The reason I was so concerned about my grades was that I wanted to transfer in two years. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get into UC Berkeley or UCLA if I didn’t get practically straight A’s. What’s more, I had made a promise to my parents that I would graduate in four years, so I had to earn the minimum number of credits required to transfer within two years.

But I was faced with a dilemma even before my first semester at community college began. To transfer to UC Berkeley or UCLA, I needed to earn 60 transferable credits during my two years at community college, but since my English level wasn’t high enough I was only going to be able to earn one credit. There are two semesters in the school year and most students take 15 credits in each semester. That adds up to 60 credits in two years. Since I was only going to be able to earn one transferable credit during my first semester, I would have to take a lot of credits in the following semesters in order to transfer in two years. In addition, the ESL class I took during my first semester was really difficult and I had a hard time with it. I had already started to feel worried at that point about whether I would be able to transfer.

In order to transfer to a four-year university, students have to take a wide variety of liberal arts courses in addition to earning the minimum number of credits. Community colleges in California provide booklets on the departments and courses that students hoping to transfer should take. Since I had decided to major in economics after I transferred, I took basic economics courses in addition to liberal arts courses when I was at community college. Even though I was only able to earn one credit in my first semester, I went on to earn 17 credits, 18 credits, and 19 credits in subsequent semesters. I also earned six credits and eight credits during the summer terms, allowing me to successfully earn the required number of credits to transfer within two years.

In addition to promising my parents that I would graduate within four years, I also promised them that I would not buy a car due to safety concerns. So when I looked at schools to decide which one to attend, I checked whether they were in areas that would be easy to commute to without a car. Since the buses in the Bay Area run frequently, it was possible for me to get around the city without a car. I took two buses to commute to college, but sometimes I had to wait 20 to 30 minutes at the bus stop. Even going food shopping at the closest supermarket could easily take around two hours. In addition to transportation problems, the water there didn’t seem to agree with me. Three days after I moved into my new place, my skin suddenly broke out into a rash. I had no idea what was wrong with me. I thought maybe I was allergic to the lotion I was using. I went to a Japanese clinic in the area, but they couldn’t figure out what was causing it. Then I looked on the Internet, and realized it might be because of the water. After I switched to mineral water, the rash got better by the next day. So from that day until I moved away from the Bay Area a year and several months later, I washed my face with mineral water. I went to the supermarket once a week on my way home from school by bus to buy the heavy bottles of water.

My living arrangements gave me just about as much trouble as my schoolwork. Since I had lived with my family for 18 years without moving once in my life, I never realized how hard life could be. The most difficult part was finding a place to live. I was living in the dorm when I was attending language school, and when I went to community college the school introduced me to a company that arranged a home-stay for me. But six months after I started living there, my host family suddenly told me that they were moving and there was only one month left until the moving date. So I started searching for a place to live for the first time in my life. I couldn’t afford to live alone, so I considered living with a roommate. Since I had problems with an Italian roommate at the language school, I thought it would be best to find a roommate from Japan or somewhere else in Asia. I had heard stories about people living with friends and getting into huge fights, so I asked acquaintances if they knew of anyone who was looking for a roommate. But the timing never seemed to work out right. I finally found an older Japanese woman who was looking for a roommate on a message board for a local Japanese community site. However, she had a car and I was commuting by bus, so we couldn’t reach an agreement on where to live. When my host family’s moving date rolled around, I still hadn’t found a place to live. I ended up staying at a friend’s place and searching for a place to live for another month until I finally found an apartment. Since I had so much trouble with moving right at the beginning of my stay, I tried not to accumulate too many belongings after that. I moved around quite a bit after that. In fact, during my four years studying abroad, I moved a total of 14 times. What I learned from that experience is that you shouldn’t accumulate a lot of stuff (especially furniture), and that friends are important. I became keenly aware that you can lose any of the things we take for granted in Japan (home, water, family, and so on) in an instant.

Moving from the West Coast to the East Coast

As I researched transfer requirements, such as courses and extracurricular activities, at the end of my first year at community college, I began to think seriously about applying to a wider range of schools. I had always been fascinated by New York, so I began considering applying to some of the top schools on the East Coast, including the prestigious Ivy League schools. That was when I realized that those schools had different transfer requirements from UC Berkeley and UCLA. The first difference is that you have to take tests such as TOEFL and the SAT. When transferring to UC Berkeley and UCLA, the TOEFL test requirement can be waived if a student achieves a certain grade level in community college English courses, so most students don’t need to take the test.

The second difference is the number of essays required. An essay is required when transferring to the UC schools, but it is not necessary to write a different essay for each school. In other words, I could use the same essay for both UC Berkeley and UCLA. However, other highly selective universities assign a variety of different essay topics and you have to approach each one individually.

The third difference is that you need to provide letters of recommendation. While UC Berkeley and UCLA do not require letters of recommendation, the other universities ask applicants to provide at least two letters of recommendation. The application deadline for UC Berkeley and UCLA was November 30, and the deadlines for the other schools were from February through April. As a result, I was busy dealing with transfer applications from the end of August all the way through April of the following year.

I knew that improving my TOEFL and SAT scores would not be easy, so I started studying even before the summer started in May. I also met a wonderful teacher at my community college named “Linda,” who helped me with my essays. I ended up applying to nine universities, and Linda checked almost all my essays. In addition to going to the college writing center four times a week, I also visited Linda in her office so that she could check my essays. Day in and day out, I worked on writing and rewriting my essays. The last application deadline was on April 1. There were tears in my eyes when I dropped the final application packet into the mailbox. I had focused all my efforts for the past two years on transferring to a four-year college and there had been plenty of tough times, but I had done everything within my power to achieve that goal. The struggle was over. I could finally stop worrying about whether I would be able to transfer to a four-year university.

Barnard College, Columbia University

In the end, I was faced with the dilemma of whether to transfer to UC Berkeley or Barnard College. I had had my sights set on transferring to UC Berkeley ever since I decided to study abroad. That was why I went to a community college in California in the first place. UC Berkeley is also well known for its economics program. Nevertheless, I decided to transfer to Barnard College in the end. I didn’t travel at all while I was at community college, so I used moving to the East Coast as an opportunity to take a trip. I spent six days traveling alone with one suitcase on Amtrak all the way from San Francisco on the West Coast to New York on the East Coast. I logged over 80 hours of train travel, stopping along the way in Denver and Chicago. When I arrived in New York, I was awestruck by the scenery that was totally different from anything I had seen on the West Coast. There were high-rise buildings all around, and the streets were overflowing with people and cars. I realized at that moment that I was in for a totally new experience.

Barnard College, Columbia University

Columbia University is a private university located on the island of Manhattan in New York City that offers undergraduate to graduate degree programs. Known as one of the Ivy League colleges, it is the sixth oldest university in the U.S. I transferred to Barnard College, which is a liberal arts women’s college within Columbia University.

Among the various undergraduate colleges at Columbia University, Columbia College is the oldest and most well known. Both President Obama and singer Hikaru Utada went there. When Columbia College was still a men’s college, Frederick Barnard, the tenth president of Columbia College, established the Barnard College campus that is across Broadway from Columbia College, because he wanted to provide education for women as well as men. Ever since that time, Barnard College has been an integral part of the Columbia University community. Barnard students are free to take courses at Columbia College, and all students at Columbia participate in club activities together and live in common dormitories. Barnard College maintains a close relationship with the main campus.

When I got to Columbia, I was surprised at how different the students and the University facilities were from those I had encountered at community college. Most of the students at Columbia have a great sense of intellectual curiosity, and they engage in heated discussions throughout the campus as they pursue their studies in fields that interest them. As opposed to community college, where I studied with people of various different ages, the students I met at Columbia were mostly from around the same age group. I was also very impressed with the school facilities. The school environment is designed to encourage students to pursue their individual interests, with nearly 20 different libraries and a variety of other facilities such as dormitories, dining halls, and gymnasiums. A U.S. presidential election was held while I was enrolled there, and Mr. Obama (who is a graduate of Columbia College) and Mr. McCain (whose daughter is a graduate of Columbia College) held a debate on the campus on September 11, 2008. A gigantic screen was set up in front of the Low Memorial Library, a landmark of the university, and students gathered there to view the debate. Only an internationally renowned university such as Columbia would be able to stage such a momentous event.

Butler Library at Columbia University

The amount of studying required at Columbia was a lot more than at community college. In particular, I was amazed at how much reading I had to do. Sometimes I had to read 200-300 pages in one week. Plus, I had to write reports and take quizzes every week, write two essays every term, and more. I was completely absorbed in my schoolwork at all times. The level of work required was also much higher than at community college. The amount of my day that was taken up with studying just naturally increased. But since the other students around me were all in the same boat, there was a sense that we were all working hard together.

Since I had so much studying to do and I was living in the dorm, I found myself spending more and more time at the library. One day I realized that I was going to the library every day before and after my classes. Butler Library, the largest library at Columbia University, is open 24 hours a day, so students can drop in whenever they feel like it. There are many different rooms inside as well as a lounge on the ground floor where students can talk, and a shop next to it. The rooms all have different layouts and atmospheres, so students tend to pick their favorite rooms to study in. When they want to discuss or talk about something, they gather in the lounge. That’s the way people study at Columbia. The library isn’t just a place to study; it’s also a venue for interaction among friends and classmates. Right before exams, there’s always a battle for seats at the library. My favorite study spot was Room 210 at Butler Library. Since I always seemed to be studying there, my friends used to say: “Room 210 at Butler Library is Ayumi’s room.”

Ayumi celebrates her birthday with friends at Columbia University

At Columbia, I was able to experience the dorm life that I wasn’t exposed to at community college. The advantages of living in the dorm are that you can meet friends and classmates anytime and also live close to the university’s classrooms and libraries. I used to talk with my friends about all sorts of things regardless of what time it was. I have memories of lying on the sofas around campus and sitting outside on the grass, discussing economics, politics, education, and human relationships until 5:00 a.m. And since the library was open 24 hours, I was able to study until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and head back to my dorm after that. There was a guard stationed outside the dorm at all times and we had to show our ID every time we entered the dorm, so I didn’t feel concerned about my safety.

One of the major attractions of Columbia University is that it is located in Manhattan – a place that is brimming with people, products, and culture from around the world. There are famous buildings and cultural sites throughout the area – the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, the UN Headquarters, Wall Street, the Blue Note, Fifth Avenue, SoHo, Times Square, Broadway, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty. Whenever I had time, I ventured out with my friends to see the sites. The courses at the university also take advantage of its location in New York. For example, when I took a class on jazz, we were required to go to three jazz concerts and write a report on them, and when I took an art class, we had to write a report on a museum. During the summer, I took courses at New York University, which is located right in the center of Manhattan. Since I stayed in a dorm located near SoHo during that term, I was able to enjoy living in New York even more than when I was at Columbia.


Columbia University graduation ceremony

When I transferred to Barnard College from community college, I was only able to transfer 48 credits. However, I took courses during the summer term and earned more credits than average during each term so that I was able to graduate in two years. Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the graduation ceremony for Barnard College. The weather was beautiful on the day I participated in the graduation ceremony for all of Columbia University, and the atmosphere was like a festival. My family came to New York for the graduation ceremony and they enjoyed attending the exciting and grand event that was totally different from Japanese university graduation ceremonies.

After graduation, I returned to Japan. Everything looked just about the same as it did when I left for the U.S., but my state of mind has changed significantly.

When I was in Japan, I felt stifled. I couldn’t be myself and I wasn’t able to think deeply about who I really am and figure out what I was interested in and what I wanted to do with my life. By studying abroad, I was able to search for myself for the first time through learning about countries, people, and cultures other than my own.

Through studying at various different types of schools, I’ve developed a strong desire to work in the field of education. I’ve noticed that there are less internationally minded people working in educational fields in Japan than in other countries, so I would like to play a role in the development of individuals who can thrive in a global society. My journey to find myself has only just begun. Studying abroad was just the first step; I still have a long way to go.


Ayumi Ode

Graduated from Columbia University’s Barnard College with a major in economics in 2009. Developed an interest in journalism and worked as an intern at a local newspaper for Japanese residents in New York and the New York branch of Kyodo News while studying at Columbia University. Decided to pursue a career in education after becoming aware of problems in the Japanese educational system through studying at various different types of schools. Currently working at a Japanese educational support company to help develop individuals who can thrive in a global society.