In and Out of the Japanese Classroom

View of a Japanese classroom through a window; a teacher at a chalkboard
What do you do if the professors in your host country don't understand your disability? Jonathon, a student with ADHD, identifies the pitfalls he faced abroad so others can travel feeling more prepared.

Smiles spread on the Japanese storekeepers' faces as Jonathon, an obvious foreigner, asks them a question in their language. Jonathon, a University of Iowa graduate student who is spending a semester abroad, loves this interaction with the locals, both for absorbing the culture and practicing his Japanese language skills.

However, inside Japan’s Nanzan University classroom, his experience is quite different. For students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), like Jonathon, the differences in educational expectations may affect students in ways typical accommodations, such as extended time on tests, don’t address.

Jonathon feels that his disability was more understood in the United States than it was in Japan.

"If I'm late three minutes [in the U.S. classroom], I can make up a test instead of taking an ‘F’. If I lose a sheet of paper, professors don’t say, ‘Find it on your own from another student'; they will just give me another copy because they understand why I lost the sheet of paper."

In contrast, Jonathon got the sense that his professors in Japan didn't think he had a disability or perhaps believed that his behavior was intentional. Due to these issues with his professors, Jonathon decided to return home early.

With thousands of education abroad programs available to U.S. students today, identifying a program with the cultural aspects, educational system or environment that may be more conducive to the type of learning an individual is seeking can be a challenge. However, classroom-based programs are not the only option, as countless internships, service-learning and other experiential programs now offer academic credit in creative ways.

Jonathon discovered too late that his program wasn’t a good match for him.

The Japanese educational system tends to use teacher-centered instruction instead of interactive lessons as well as self-study instead of specific assignments, which made it hard for Jonathon to understand what he should focus on. Tests also covered more chapters than he was used to at home.He recalls how the required class schedule lasted all morning without breaks.

“I would be sitting in the classroom repeating to myself  ‘Don’t walk out of the room – just sit here and tolerate it. Then, just acting on an impulse, I would be already out of the room."

Although Jonathon explained that he didn't mean to do this on purpose, his professors were at a loss for suggesting a solution.

Unfortunately, Jonathon wasn’t able to get the academic and disability-related support he needed during the professors’ office hours, and he didn’t know that contacting his home university in Iowa could have provided some assistance. For example, students at other universities have been known to arrange online weekly check-ins with their disability advisor or personal coach back home or to find a way to access audio books.

Despite his academic struggles and early return home, Jonathon looks on the bright side, recognizing that he gained so much more than what can be calculated in a grade point average.

“I think I had too much of an [academic] expectation. If your grades aren’t [what you expected] when you study abroad, don’t worry about it because it’s really an experience to live in a new country. The lessons that you learn outside of class and about yourself are going to triple the amount that you’re going to learn inside of classroom. I’m definitely a changed person for the rest of my life.”


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