By Jess Dankenbring, ’17

When Ayumi Tachikawa, ’16, was just 5 years old, she immigrated to the U.S. from Japan. She doesn’t remember all of the cultural differences she encountered, but her mother tells stories of kids teasing her because she couldn’t speak English.

But after the initial cultural shock, Tachikawa found that her Japanese-American heritage was something to embrace. She could relate to students who left their home country to travel to the U.S. for better opportunities.

This past summer, Tachikawa had a chance to explore her Japanese-American heritage in a new light when she interned at the prestigious Tomodachi Initiative in Japan. The organization began with support for communities devastated by the March 2011 earthquake. It invests in the next generation of Japanese and American leaders through educational and cultural exchanges.

“For me, there’s always been a little bit of conflict about whether I’m Japanese or American,” Tachikawa says. “I would say that I’m a mixture of both, so I think I understand both perspectives. So going into the internship and speaking to the Japanese students who were about to experience cultural differences in the U.S., I think I was able to prepare them for what they were going to experience.”

By assisting students with their education, Tomodachi Initiative hopes to reach out to the next generation, while deepening relations between the U.S. and Japan. It was a perfect match for Tachikawa's interests. She intends to major in international studies with a concentration in world diplomacy and minor in Japanese.

“It was kind of nice for me to see what kind of jobs are out there that utilize both Japanese and English because that’s what I want to do in the future,” Tachikawa says. “But I also liked getting to know how to interact with people.”

Tachikawa's responsibilities were varied, ranging from sending off students at the airport, to attending presentations held by the U.S. ambassador. She also got to meet a wide variety of people in the workplace.

“I was surprised how many students were so eager to study abroad or to get an education in the United States,” Tachikawa says. “That made me appreciate what I have here because so many students in Japan want an education in the U.S. but just can’t. Circumstances don’t allow them to. It was also a motivator for me to see middle schoolers and high schoolers so excited to learn about U.S.-Japan relations and wanting to make a change. It was so inspiring for me.”

Tachikawa wasn't new to life in Japan. Even though she emigrated as a child, she had returned on occasion with her mother. But the experience of working with a nonprofit organization offered a perspective that was more than she had anticipated.

“Going in, I thought I was just going to do an internship in Japan and that was good enough for me," she says. "But I think of all of the people I got to talk to -- big bank executives and the ambassador and people that I never thought I would get to interact with. Even just the people at the workplace were such empowering women. Everything exceeded my expectations.”