By Mio Suzuki, student at Meiji University

From the time I entered university, I knew I definitely wanted to study abroad someday. I felt that no matter how much I studied English in Japan, I wouldn’t be able to achieve a solid command of the language unless I put myself in an environment where most people speak it as a mother tongue. But studying abroad is expensive. The cost was a major hurdle for me because I wanted to pay my own way without putting a financial burden on my family.

When I heard about the TOMODACHI Microsoft iLEAP Social Innovation and Leadership Program, I knew it was a good fit for me. Even though it’s only a short-term program, it fulfilled my three requirements -- studying abroad, putting myself in an environment where nobody knows me, and reflecting on myself before entering the workforce. So I decided to apply for the program.

TOMODACHI Microsoft iLEAP Social Innovation and Leadership Program

The program provides opportunities for participants to find their own visions and leadership styles through workshops and a group project at a non-profit organization while staying in Seattle, Washington, for about a month. During the program, I thought about how I can make an impact on Japanese society by reflecting on myself and my connection with society. In one of the sessions we attended, we learned about how to communicate with others based on the question, “Who am I?” At the NPO, we took a class on the business aspects of NPOs and talked about how to contribute to society by working on a team project. These experiences helped me acquire some of the skills I’ll need to become a responsible member of society.


At the program completion ceremony

My impression of Seattle

The environment in Seattle feels different from Japan. Some parts of the city are crowded with tourists, while other parts are specifically designated as business or arts districts. The cities in Japan are like this as well, but in Seattle there are clearly defined areas of the city where specific ethnic groups have gathered over the years, such as Chinatown and Japantown. What surprised me the most was that there are separate districts occupied by different segments of the population, such as wealthy people, low-income households, and the LGBT community.

Another characteristic of Seattle is that it offers an environment that enables NPOs to take root. I don’t know if this is unique to Seattle, but being in close proximity to various NPOs made me feel more aware of how I could be involved in social innovation. One of the NPOs I visited was FareStart, which helps reintegrate homeless people into society through the restaurant business. The participants start out by working at a restaurant simply to make a living, but the experience also helps them learn how to work with other people and obtain the necessary skills to become food service professionals. Although it might sound like they’re just doing a part-time job, it’s not easy for homeless people to take the first step toward reentering to the working world. I was impressed when one of the organizers said, “When people drop out of our culinary job training program, we keep waiting until they’re ready to come back.” I realized that they’re willing to wait for the participants to return because they want to make sure they are truly ready to become responsible members of society.

I was also surprised by the idea of a business striving not just to generate profits, but also to transform people’s lives. Learning about this type of organization in Seattle gave me a chance to reflect on how I can contribute to society before embarking on a career. I think one of the benefits of studying abroad is that you can develop your own values by taking note of the things that make other places different from Japan and reflecting on them.


Photos of FareStart graduates displayed at a restaurant

Knowing yourself is the first step

One of the most important themes of the leadership program was the question, “Who am I?” The program gave me plenty of time to think about myself in an environment where nobody knows me. There probably aren’t many people in our society who can immediately tell you what led to them becoming who they are today. In our day-to-day lives, we rarely think about what motivated us to develop our own beliefs and goals. Studying abroad can give you a chance to stop and think about yourself. It also enables you to understand your strong points and weak points and gain the courage to talk to other people about them.

Different people lead in different ways

As the name suggests, the TOMODACHI Microsoft iLEAP Social Innovation and Leadership Program focuses on leadership training. When people hear the word “leader,” they often imagine someone who stands in front of a group of people and leads them toward a goal. But leadership goes beyond that. I learned in the program that leadership is the ability to identify how you can contribute to a team’s success and devoting your energy to achieving that. That’s why understanding yourself is so important. You’ll never know how to approach a situation unless you know what options you have. Understanding what you can and cannot do isn’t the same thing as limiting your potential. When people complement each other and put their unique skills to good use, it leads to better teamwork and gives everyone a chance to exercise leadership in their own way.


Speaking at the program completion ceremony

Pay it forward, not back

One of the things I learned in the leadership program is the term “pay it forward.” All of the experiences I had in Seattle were made possible by the people I came into contact with there, so I felt like I needed to find a way to return the favor. But simply paying it back wouldn’t help me to make use of what I had learned. By “paying it forward,” however, I can help to make society a better place.

By sharing these experiences with others, I want to be a person who contributes to social innovation. Anyone can benefit from studying abroad, regardless of whether it’s a short-term or long-term program. It’s up to you to make it happen. Putting yourself in a new and different environment will give you a chance to discover yourself and your true potential. Take the leap and try studying in the U.S.!