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Immersion trip to Japan changes kinesiology graduate's view of the world

| Samantha West

When Paul Kroska, UW-Eau Claire graduate, looks back on the two weeks he spent in Japan as part of an international immersion experience at the University of Tsukuba, what stands out to him the most is not a workshop or class he took, a museum or any sight he saw during the trip.

Rather, what stood out to Kroska, who graduated this spring with an emphasis in physical education, was one night he spent with his host family.

It was after dinner, and a boy from the family was looking at him with a soccer ball in his hands. The boy could not speak English very well, and didn’t actually use any words to communicate, but Kroska knew exactly what to do.

With a laugh, he and the boy ran outside for a late night game of soccer he’d never forget.

Most college students don't expect to find themselves studying kinesiology at a university near Tokyo, but at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, students like Paul are able to take part in high-impact experiences specific to their major in countries around the world.

It was a simple night of passing the soccer ball back and forth, but the moment marked Kroska’s realization of how easily people can communicate through motion and sport.

“Why this was so memorable for me was that although he didn't speak much English and I hardly spoke any Japanese, we communicated so easily," Kroska said. "It felt like I already knew him and the joy we had just passing the ball in the yard was just happiness. It really shows that although you might not know an individual or the language they speak, you can still communicate through movement. Whatever range of motion an individual has, whether running for miles or just lifting their head, it's worth it because they're worth it.”

The Tsukuba Summer Institute for Physical Education and Sport, a week-long program, brings in international students and professionals from all over the world to engage in collaboration with research, workshops and traditional Japanese sporting activities.

 “The uniqueness of this program is that not only do students get to engage with Japanese students, but they also interact with students from other countries,” said Saori Braun, assistant professor of kinesiology.

For the second week, Blugolds were able to stay with a Japanese family and visit historical and cultural sites in and around Tokyo, including visit the Ajinomoto National Training Center, where training for the Olympics occurs.

At the institute, students were able to choose between different tracks to focus on, including research, workshops, and a sports track. Most students chose the sports track, spending their time learning and playing sports such as kendo and judo, traditional Japanese martial arts, as well as American football in dance, but in the way Japanese schools would teach them.

The students were exposed to different teaching methods and interpretations of the sports they grew up with, which Braun said was particularly valuable to physical education students like Kroska.

“Particularly the PE students benefited because they were able to see different ways of physical education being taught and how fitness levels are being assessed through different kinds of assessment methods,” Braun said.

As Kroska moves forward as an Elementary Physical Education K-12 teacher in Houston, he will be able to reflect his diverse experiences on his own teaching in the United States.

Diverse experiences like these offered at UW-Eau Claire make a strong impact on students, no matter their area of study, assistant professor of kinesiology Yoonsin Oh said.

“Being in a very diverse environment was an impactful experience. Speaking with non-native English speakers was a challenge – they’re facing the fact that they can’t speak Japanese and they’re facing that difficulty with people who also don’t speak English very well,” Oh said. “Trying to communicate with them … was probably the most disorienting experience that they had to go through, which we don’t normally have on campus.”

Although there was a language barrier and the different environment was somewhat uncomfortable at times, Braun said this provided students with an incomparable learning experience.

“The uncomfortableness, I think, is the biggest benefit they receive. When you’re in a situation where you are uncomfortable or you go outside your comfort zone, that is where learning occurs, not in just a content-based environment, so they can be challenged all the time in a class setting while they’re here, but this is different,” she said.

Through sport, particularly soccer, Kroska said the bulk of the discomfort was washed away.

“Although everyone didn’t speak fluid English, through movement we were able to communicate and bond … We had people from all around the world on one field showing off their skills and having a blast while doing it. There were many presentations throughout the program that were also important and intuitive, but what I valued was not necessarily knowledge but emotions that I felt while playing soccer. Joy, happiness and the freedom to express myself how I wanted through movement.”