Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Aberystwyth University Cultural Ambassadors are on their way to Yosano!

A University's international ambitions must stretch beyond the recruitment of overseas students; and any University that is not doing all it can to give its students the opportunity to travel and experience other cultures cannot with any credibility claim to be internationally focused.

I am incredibly lucky that I work at a University - Aberystwyth, the University of the Year 2018 for Teaching Quality - that does understand the difference between 'international' and 'internationalisation'. I define the former as routine business - student recruitment, forging partnerships etc. The latter is about embedding a global outlook and experience among all staff and students, celebrating diversity and learning from the array of different cultures on campus, and identifying new opportunities for student mobility.

This is the third year I have organised a competition to find students to visit Aberystwyth's partner town in Japan, Yosano and be cultural ambassadors for both the town and the University.  This year five students will be going: Vera from the Department of Psychology; Samantha and Carys from English and Creative Writing; Giselle from Physics; and Marged from the Department of History and Welsh History. They not only represent a wide range of disciplines, but they are all in different years of study. They met each other for the first time and there was an instant bond. By the time they left our briefing session today, they were the best of friends.

And that's what it's all about, for not only will they meet new people and make lifelong friends in Japan, but they also get the opportunity to share this exciting experience with fellow students from across the University and from subjects they may know nothing about.

The 2017-18 Aberystwyth University cultural ambassadors to Yosano. From left to right: Samantha (English and Creative Writing); Giselle (Physics); Marged (History and Welsh History); Vera (Psychology); Carys (English and Creative Writing); and Dr Val Nolan (English and Creative Writing). 

This is not an academic trip. There are no lectures or seminars to attend, and they will not be assessed in any way. But we will organise visits to sites of interest that may give them new insights into their subject areas, and they will still face challenges: living with a Japanese family can be quite scary, especially with the language barrier to take into account. But weaving into a family's daily routines will allow the students to have the kind of insight into the culture they could never experience in a hotel. The students will also have to represent Aberystwyth town and University in meetings with the mayor of Yosano and his council colleagues; with school students of all ages; and with the townsfolk and their home stay families. They will be required to describe and reflect on their experiences in a number of forums both in Japan and when they return. This requires creativity (watch this space to keep up to date with their visit), but also confidence as some public speaking is expected.

In other words this is an incredible opportunity to have an incredible experience, and in the past two years the students who visited Yosano have returned with passion for Japan, new approaches to their individual subjects, lifelong friendships, a taste for one of the most delicious cuisines in the world, and lots and lots of stories to tell their families and friends. From the perspective of public and cultural diplomacy, I understand the value of such cultural encounters.

The friendship between Yosano and Aberystwyth is very close and is built on inspiring foundations (a brief version of the story is here Yosano and Frank Evans). The people of Yosano are warm and welcoming, and they truly value Aberystwyth's partnership. I feel honoured that I have the opportunity to help develop that relationship while giving our students the chance to create memories and friendships that will last their whole lives. After all, there  must be more to University than lecture halls, laboratories and libraries.

I take this opportunity to thank Louise Jagger and her team in DARO for their support of the project; and of course the Aberystwyth Alumni who through the Aber Fund are supporting financially the flights of two students. I also thank Dr Louise Holmwood Marshall, Head of the Department of English and Creative Writing, for her continued enthusiastic co-operation in the programme; Professor Nigel Holt (Head of Psychology), Dr David Jones (Head of History and Welsh History),  Professor Andrew Evans (Head of Physics), and all their colleagues who helped choose the shortlisted candidates. I also thank Professor Neil Glasser, Director of IGHPP and Professor Tim Woods, Director of IAH, for supporting financially the flight of our accompanying member of staff; Dr Val Nolan for being such a fantastic colleague to work with on this project and for agreeing yet again to visit Yosano with the students; and of course I thank our wonderful friends in Yosano who make this trip possible, especially  Haruka Tanihara and Toma Yamazoe (the mayor of Yosano), and all the families who allow our students into their homes.

Finally, I thank all the students who have applied for the chance to be cultural ambassadors for wonderful Aberystwyth over the past three years and especially those who have had the good fortune to visit our friends in Japan.

This year we have chosen a fantastic group of students: They are confident, smart, culturally sensitive, friendly, funny, and ready for any challenge and adventure - in other words, they are typical Aberystwyth students. We would expect no less from a University that puts internationalisation at the heart of its student experience.

The 2016-17 Cultural Ambassadors meeting our friends in Yosano town, including the Mayor,  Toma Yamazoe (front centre with the Welsh flag on his back)


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Drawing down the blinds

I saw my father a further four times after he died.

The first time I dreamed of him was the night after his passing. Until his minor stroke at the age of 58, Dad was robust physically - neither particularly athletic nor muscular, but he was in good shape.  When he died ten years later, the pancreatic cancer had yellowed the skin which was now hanging from his frail bones. His eyes were dark and sunken. As I held his hand during those last few days, I wept for the loss of the man he used to be. How could this old man, wasting away so quickly, be my father? Our parents are forever strong and they are immortal.

In the dream, Dad was lying in a hospital bed. He was peaceful, bathed in a warm white glow, but he was clearly in pain and he barely stirred under the sterile white sheets. His skin was still discoloured, and his face remained thin.

I had the same dream on two more successive nights, and each time I forced myself awake, my grief almost unbearable.

On the fourth night, the dream changed. Dad was no longer in bed but was standing, fully clothed and wearing the leather jacket Mum complained he never removed. He looked well; he had gained weight, and his face had filled out. He smiled and held out his arms to his side, and although he did not speak I knew he was telling me, 'I'm ok.'

I didn't dream about my father again until much later - perhaps months passed before I saw him. Sometimes I hear his voice. He calls out my name - just once - and I know what it means.

In whatever shape or form, real or imaginary, he is still with me, and I draw comfort from that thought.