by Kurt Tong
Ambassador Kurt Tong is Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo
Study abroad completely set the direction for my life and career. In 1981, just as I graduated from high school, I had an opportunity (due to my father’s sabbatical leave) to defer college in the United States and instead come to Japan and study at International Christian University for a year. The result was threefold: my soccer game improved; I learned elementary and intermediate Japanese; and the world was spared a mediocre physician as my academic interests shifted from pre-medicine to international affairs. Later, during a year of language study at the Inter-University Center in Tokyo in 1985-86, I met staff from the U.S. Embassy who helped me find an internship at the Embassy. As a result, after a short stint with the Boston Consulting Group, I soon found myself forgoing graduate school or the possibility of an academic or journalism career to join the U.S. Foreign Service. This direction was further reinforced by my participation in the Japan-America Student Conferences in 1984 and 1985, where I discussed weighty world affairs with Japanese friends, and – most important – met my future spouse. Without these study abroad experiences, I imagine that instead of my current work I would be living somewhere in rural New England, raising livestock and treating the mumps and skiing injuries.
Even if people studying abroad do not end up having career and life direction-setting experiences, like I did, they still almost always have experiences that inexorably alter their view of the world and their place in it. As Atticus Finch said in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In an increasing round and global world, international experience is irreplaceable, and study abroad is among the most profound forms of international experience. I have numerous friends from the Japan-America Student Conference whose day-to-day work and life has little to do with Japan, but who readily explain that the JASC experience shaped their approach to life in profound ways. The fine work of CULCON will not only help strengthen bonds between the United States and Japan — an important goal — but it will also improve lives and mutual understanding even more broadly, both within and between nations.