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TISA: Foreign Students Helping Each Other

Author: Author Unknown, Issue: January 1995, Topic: Education

The Tsukuba International Students Association is an organization of foreign students at Tsukuba University designed to promote communication between foreign students and Japanese students as well as be a catalyst for dialog among themselves. Events are held throughout the years to provide arenas for cultural interchange and dialog and to help foreign students with the problems they face living in a foreign country.

TISA began in 1980 during the "pioneer days" of Tsukuba. Medi Ahmadyar, who came as a foreign student to Tsukuba from Afghanistan in 1977, was one of the founding members and the organization's president for 2 years in 1984 and 1985. He described the situation in 1977 as rather bleak, with the new Tsukuba University (which had just transferred its entire operation out from the original school in Tokyo) located in "the middle of nowhere" with little in the way of shopping, recreational or any other such facilities in the surrounding areas. The nearest area for that was in downtown Tsuchiura. At that time, there were only about 30 to 40 foreign students at the university.

When TISA was organized in 1980, the foreign student population had increased to about 100. In its first two years, it was led first by an American student and then by a Taiwanese, but after these two persons finished their terms, no new leadership materialized, and for a couple of years, the organization went into de facto hibernation. When Mr. Ahmadyar (presently working as a teacher at Meikei, a private school in Tsukuba) spearheaded an effort to get things going again, it was already 1984 and work was going on at a feverish pitch in the city as a whole to prepare for the EXPO '85 World's Science Fair. The number of foreign students was also rapidly increasing, and by 1985, there were approximately 700, a huge increase from which only modest increases have occurred since then.

In addition to the isolation felt by the "pioneers" of the "early days", one of the biggest problems faced by foreign students was what to do during the more than two-week winter holidays. The university is essentially shut down during this period, and all of the Japanese students have returned to their homes. For those foreign students without the means to take a trip back to their home countries or who are not fortunate enough to have a Japanese friend invite them home for the holidays, this means that they are stuck in dorms without heat or hot water, and since all of the eating facilities on campus are closed down, they likewise have to travel some distance off campus to find any place to buy food. This situation is only somewhat improved even today. The university does offer individual electric heaters for those stuck in the dorms, but there never seem to be enough, and there is still no place to bathe.

One of the biggest problems faced by TISA is the lack of any significant funding from the outside with which to run its programs. In the early days, most of the few foreign students in Tsukuba were on government scholarships. This meant that they did not need to have part-time employment and thus had more time for TISA activities.

The situation today, however, is quite different, as only about 30% of T.U.'s 961 foreign students are on Japanese scholarships. Some of the other 70% have foreign scholarships or small private scholarships, but most are here on their own. This means that they spend whatever extra time they have to earn money to pay for their education, and consequently have little if any time for TISA activities. Likewise, since TISA has no outside funding, they have to charge admission, and so even a 1000 fee for someone operating "on a shoe-string" is a great deterrent to getting involved.

This is in sharp contrast to the several other foreign student organizations for students from individual countries. A representative of the Chinese Student's Association, who is also active in TISA, described the numerous activities they are able to do on their 1,000,000 stipend from the Chinese government. This is spread among the 329 Chinese students (and so it is only about 3000 per student if everybody participates), but it helps subsidize two trips a year (such as to Disneyland, Nikko, etc.) and a Chinese New Year's party, among other things. Other similarly funded associations exist for students from other countries with significant numbers of students. Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines are also among those with country-sponsored groups. Unfortunately, however, the United Nations hasn't offered to fund TISA!

Martin Roche, who served as TISA's president in 1990-91, emphasized the problem TISA has had with continuity over the years. Each year or two, a new set of people are involved, and thus leadership styles and what gets done varies considerably from year to year. Likewise, since the faculty advisor often changes with the TISA president, that also hampers continuity. Also, since few foreign students have the time to be heavily involved in running TISA, finding students able and willing to serve on the TISA board has also been a problem.

One way this problem of continuity has graphically manifested itself is that after the TISA newsletter editor finished her program and returned to Mexico, there was no one to take her place. Thus, the TISA newsletter has not been printed in over a year now.

When TISA began, there was discussion as to whether Japanese students should also be a part of the organization. The decision was made then to form a separate organization called "APIC" (Association for the Promotion of International Cooperation) that would be made up of interested Japanese students (as well as foreign students). This group was to cooperate with TISA in its bazaar and other such activities, but the running of TISA itself would be left to foreign students alone. Because of the shortage of willing foreign students, however, the decision was made last year to elect three Japanese members of the 11 person committee to help out.

With so many languages represented, Japanese is the common language that is used. People are welcome to use other languages to express themselves as long as someone else can translate what's said into Japanese. Interestingly enough, however, due to the difficulty of writing in Japanese, the founding documents of TISA were all written in English, and it's only recently that these have been translated into Japanese.

Another problem TISA has faced is the difficulty of getting information out to people in so many different circumstances (something THE ALIEN TIMES can certainly identify with!). Bulletin boards are often located in inconvenient places, and for many places, permission with the proper "hankos" must be gotten to even put up posters. Likewise, the nearest thing to a "Student Union" building, such as are common on western universities, is the TISA office and lounge in the Foreign Student Center and a building set aside for "club activities". University facilities are only available until 9 pm, and so that also severely limits what can be done in the way of get-togethers.

Han Yue, who often goes by the Japanese pronunciation of her name, "Kan Etsu", is the present head of TISA. She described the activities of TISA during the past year as a twice-a-year bazaar (April and October), a disco party at Joy Pack, a ski trip and the January 18 speech contest in Japanese. This is in addition, of course, to their monthly meetings.

When asked what could be done to improve TISA and the lot of foreign students studying at Tsukuba University, she mentioned that a lack of understanding on the part of Japanese officialdom as a whole concerning the situation of foreign students is a significant problem. The attitude of "you're here to study and not play around" is quite prevalent, and thus TISA is often looked upon as just another "circle" (social club) of little importance. Thus, more official recognition of the importance of TISA would certainly help the situation.

Likewise, getting more help from off-campus volunteer groups ­p;­p; especially those within Tsukuba ­p;­p; would be welcomed. Interestingly enough, most such help up to now has come from the Tsuchiura Lion's Club and "Unesco", a volunteer group of housewives also centered in Tsuchiura. More scholarships being offered would also make a big difference, not just with TISA activities because more people would thus be able to get involved, but also because it would allow more foreign students to benefit from their stay in Japan.

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