Hiroshima native's degree path
leads to career in study abroad
Walking into Ellsworth Hall to work in the Study Abroad office is a daily reminder of the first door Eri Nishiyama entered at Western Michigan University when she arrived on campus in May 1993.
“It’s a great feeling, and at the same time a strange sentiment to enter the main entrance door to Ellsworth to come to work now,” said Nishiyama, a native of Hiroshima, Japan. “It is the very first door I entered when I came to WMU to study in the ESL program, and now I walk through it every day.”
That first door entered pointed Nishiyama to an educational and career path that eventually steered her to WMU’s Study Abroad office in August 2009, where she serves as a study abroad specialist, advising and assisting students enrolling in overseas programs.
Her interest in studying English in the United States stems back to Nishiyama’s sophomore year in high school in Hiroshima. After she graduated from high school, she knew she wanted to study English, but she wasn’t sure whether jumping into a career right after high school or going to college or a specialty school was the right choice. She came up with the idea to prepare to work as a tour conductor in a travel agency, which at the time in Japan was a highly competitive profession to enter.
"My mom suggested that I study English where they speak it and she was all about me coming to the United States to learn,” she said. “When my mother was young, it was her dream to study in Germany, but my grandfather, as stubborn as he could be, forbid it.”
Nishiyama in Italy with Dr. deLisle's Life and Leisure
in Ancient Rome study abroad course
Though Nishiyama had studied English for a few years in high school, the instruction was more focused on learning grammar, which she didn’t find to be particularly helpful.
"The only thing I could say is 'Hello, my name is…," she said. "I struggled a lot and could only read English if I tried very hard. So I decided to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), and at the time, a score of 500 was the minimum for acceptance into universities. My score was not good at all."
She set her sights on WMU’s ESL program, the Center for English Language and Culture for International Students, and crossed the Pacific for the first time in her life to begin classes in May 1993. Nishiyama recalls that she adjusted immediately and experienced almost no culture shock.
"I was 18 and not scared of anything," she said. "Actually I feel so bad now, remembering, I didn’t call my mom for a month or two after I got here. There was so much to do and I was ready for a new challenge. Mom figured no news is good news."
She said what helped her adjust was that everybody in CELCIS was an international student, all working toward the same goal: to learn English. And, there were plenty of Japanese students in the program to help her assimilate, but that became a double-edged sword.
"It was my natural intention to speak Japanese with them—it was just more comfortable," she said. "After a year I asked myself “Why am I doing this…my mom is paying a lot for my education here and my English is not improving.’ So, I decided to minimize my contact with my Japanese friends and hang out with other students so I’d be forced to speak English. I also signed up to connect with a conversation partner.”
She said the shame that comes from not being understood when speaking, especially for Asian students, is emotionally difficult. "You don’t want to make a mistake and have it corrected,” she said. “So, it's really hard to make conversation because you shy away and don't improve.”
After completing the CELCIS program and leaving its “bubble,” she was accepted for enrollment in University classes and decided to major in business. She eventually moved off campus to a nearby apartment complex with a Korean friend. Her English still had room for improvement, so she took bridge courses and signed up again in CELCIS’s conversation buddy program to practice her skills.
She recalls having a very tough first year in her bachelor’s program. She had to take a computer systems course and she had never dealt much with computers. There didn’t seem to be much to do and she was often alone. Luckily, her suitemate was a Japanese girl of the same age and the two got along well. One day, they got adventurous and took the bus downtown.
At Fushimi Inari in Kyoto"It was Sunday, and there was nothing open and no one was walking around," she said. "I'm from a pretty big town and in Japan people are everywhere, so it was weird at first and I didn't like it at all. So, I started playing tennis, hanging out with my new friends, and really focused on my studies. International students have lots of opportunities and options now. The Haenicke Institute puts a lot of effort into welcoming them and making them feel at home."
Moving to another apartment with an American friend who owned a car made it possible for Nishiyama to see more of Kalamazoo and Michigan. She also decided to switch her major to tourism.
“My interest in becoming a translator seemed close enough to tourism so I tried it out,” she said. After a few semesters I realized that I wasn’t passionate enough for that discipline either. I continued taking general education courses as I considered my options.”
A meeting at her apartment with an international student her roommate was friends with provided Nishiyama with an introduction to graphic design, which prompted her to switch her major again to study art.
"He told me that nobody starts off in an area as an expert, so I should try something new,” she said. “I became really interested from taking a few classes in art, but I wasn’t accepted into WMU’s program. I had completed all my general education courses and didn't want to wait around for the next application round, so I decided to transfer to the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco, Calif. in 1996."
The school was attractive to her because of the opportunities it offered and its challenging curriculum. "Everybody wanted to be a hot shot," she said "And at the same time it was very stimulating. For example, one of my teachers was a professional designer for Nike."
When her visa expired before she completed the program, she was forced to return to Japan and to work two jobs for a year until she could renew it. That time also allowed her to get a better sense for her long-term academic and career goals.
When Nishiyam returned to WMU in 1998 to complete her art degree, she wanted to fast track her courses to avoid racking up unnecessary tuition costs. Then she discovered ceramics. “It became my passion—my obsession for a while,” she said. “I shared a studio for two years in the Park Trades Center in downtown Kalamazoo.”
She also took a job in WMU’s Waldo Library processing department. After graduating in 2000 with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Nishiyama was offered a temporary job in the cataloging department, now called the technical services department.
“At the library, there were a lot of international students, which I helped because they saw me as a unique resource having lived here for so long,” she said. “I even became friends with some of them. I realized that I really liked relating my experiences to them because I struggled as an undergrad and I wanted to help them avoid problems. That prompted me to ask myself what I could do with this idea."
An opportunity to transfer to the Study Abroad office and assume the duties of a study abroad specialist helped Nishiyama define her career path to involve advising students. Her duties include helping WMU students study abroad in Asian countries, Italy, Northern Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and African countries. She said more than 500 WMU students travel overseas to study each year.
Nishiyama greets an elephant while on vacation
in Chitwan, Nepal, February 2011
"Because I was an international student, I want to encourage other students to do the same," she said. "It's an eye-opening experience, which changes your perception. Sometimes I think about what I would be like if I had stayed in Japan and not gotten my education here—I would be a completely different person. Studying abroad opens new doors to many things, not only extending your cultural competency and learning about other cultures.”
Working in Study Abroad has further fine-tuned Nishiyama’s career plans—she is now pursuing a master’s degree at WMU in college counseling she plans to complete in 2012. When she’s not at work or in class, she enjoys traveling, camping, kayaking, picking the various fruits that are abundant in the Kalamazoo area, and being creative in the kitchen. She recently discovered that the kneading process of bread-making is reminiscent of the clay-forming work she does in ceramics, which has resulted in Nishiyama regularly experimenting with baking different varieties of breads.
Looking back on her first days at WMU when her mom was anxious to know how she was doing, Nishiyama says it’s ironic that she now gets phone calls from parents wondering if their students studying overseas are okay.
Visit WMU Study Abroad at: www.wmich.edu/studyabroad
Story by Nate Coe