Trading places: Student exchange programs help establish Blacksburg as an international hub
As the train pulls up to Hirakatashi Station, Virginia Tech student Scott Hobbs enters the final leg of his international journey to Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan. Meanwhile, about 7,000 miles away, Kansai Gaidai student Satoka Mitsuhashi is having a similar experience as she travels along Interstate 81 to her international destination: Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech partners with Kansai Gaidai and 44 other international universities to give students such as Hobbs, a senior studying accounting in the Pamplin College of Business, and Mitsuhashi, a senior studying hospitality and tourism management, the ability to trade places through international reciprocal exchange. It’s a type of study abroad where students from each institution can spend either a semester or a year at the host institution as nondegree-seeking students.
Maureen Deisinger, associate director of partnerships and affiliations in the Global Education Office, works across time zones to nurture Virginia Tech’s partnerships and maintain Blacksburg’s place as an international hub for multicultural exchange. Of the 1,200 Hokies who study abroad each year, about 100 are on exchange programs, and among the roughly 4,000 international students Virginia Tech welcomes annually, 100 are international exchange students.
Deisinger said international student exchange was largely catalyzed by the world wars as the United States and other countries realized the need for multicultural tolerance and diplomacy.
“Exchange is the most immersive way to study abroad,” she said. “Students aren’t surrounded by other Hokies, so they need to learn how to navigate within a culture, not just be observers. As exchange students return, they report being more adaptable, flexible, and culturally aware. They also report being more prepared for the next stages of life.”
Exchange programs are also an opportunity for students to act as cultural ambassadors, promoting international relations at intimate levels.
Hobbs’ journey continued a family legacy. His father met his mother while studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai. “I actually knew I wanted to go there for my entire undergraduate career before considering Virginia Tech, but my parents were very against it,” Hobbs said. “After we found that Kansai Gaidai’s course offerings were a perfect fit for me as an accounting student, though, the exchange program became a golden opportunity to pursue my personal and academic goals.”
Academically, Hobbs found Kansai Gaidai to be familiar but challenging. “For all intents and purposes, the education style was very Western. But many of the international business classes I took were evidently aimed at people at the end of their college careers. The classes had a lot of higher-level concepts that required a basic understanding of the subject already,” Hobbs said.
Before his time in Japan, he learned to perfect ochugen, which is a form of gift-giving to show deep appreciation to those to whom you are indebted. To show his gratitude to Kansai Gaidai’s study abroad office for helping him navigate two failed travel attempts due to COVID, he gifted them a Costco-size package of American biscuits when he finally arrived.
But Hobbs didn’t just learn Japanese customs. He also introduced a little bit of the Blacksburg college life by organizing socials at a local restaurant called Ottsu. Every other week, he rallied 20 to 60 Kansai Gaidai students to the restaurant, feeling as if they were at Blacksburg's Top of the Stairs on the weekend.
Mitsuhashi’s desire to come to the U.S. started early in life when American media like “iCarly” and “Pitch Perfect” sparked her interest to learn English. Kansai Gaidai nominated her to study at Virginia Tech for its hospitality and tourism program. Unfamiliar with U.S. college campus life, she embraced everything Virginia Tech had to offer, such as the wide breadth of academic programs, the passion around football games, and even a cappella auditions. In exchange, Satoka was able to share her cultural practices.
“As children in Japan, we are trained to bring mini towels or handkerchiefs instead of paper towels in bathrooms and public restrooms. So in one of my classes, we created a project to implement the use of reusable hand towels. We shared about not only cultural differences, but also the costs of paper towels. We interviewed facilities and operations directors and staff, my family, and friends. After presenting our project, it was chosen by my professor to share with the sustainability department at Virginia Tech,” she said.
Exchange programs also help with identifying cultural contradictions. For example, Mitsuhashi described her pleasant surprise at the open-mindedness of people in Blacksburg versus the modesty in Japanese culture. “Whenever I go out here,” she said, “people always smile and say hello, even if I don’t know them. ... People here have openness and hug people — I never did that in Japan.”
In the same vein, Hobbs described his experiences in a nearby onsen, or public hot spring bathhouse, where he and his Western friends had to get used to a different culture of openness and bodily comfort.
But Virginia Tech’s exchange program doesn’t just expose cultural differences and contradictions. It also creates opportunities to examine our commonalities across differences. Both Hobbs and Mitsuhashi described their initial challenges, fears, and loneliness upon arriving at their destination, and the solution to overcoming them was the same: community.
When asked what they would miss the most, they both responded with fondness about the people and connections they built in their host countries and their excitement to continue traveling internationally.