Alumni Spotlight: Andrew Douglas Sokulski

An American born in Houston, Texas to immigrant parents who, with an adoration for poetry and building a peaceful international community, decided to attend The New School in New York City and study abroad in Kyoto, Japan; the poetic, ancient imperial capital of Japan.

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Why did you choose this program?

I chose to study through CIS Abroad in Japan because of its wide range of activities, ease of communicability between staff and student, diversity, the excursions, and the experienced site leader.

From the start of the application process, to the time I returned back to the United States, I had few to no issues while communicating with the staff of CIS Abroad. The group I went with was CIS Abroad's first large group to study abroad at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Keeping that in mind and the range of unknown factors that could come from that, CIS Abroad maintained a great balance and was able to provide us with a spectacular experience.

Since I was in preschool, I have always wanted to go to Japan; finding CIS Abroad helped that dream come true in the smoothest form possible.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Being that I discovered CIS Abroad on my own, my university did not necessarily know much about the program. As a result, they could not asset me, though it was of no fault of their own. I organized every step of the process, and was grateful for the kind and cooperative nature of each and every of the CIS representatives I spoke with throughout the process. Doing tasks on my own gives me more responsibility and also a clear sense of all of the intricacies. Because of this, I felt more accomplished by the time all was set and I was flying toward the land of the rising sun.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Know that Japan has a national health insurance program, which is absolutely necessary to register for. There is no way to not sign up for it. Since my group was the first group to attend this program, they did not know before hand. But for the incoming students, I would say save some extra cash to pay for the monthly insurance deposits. It is not expensive in the least, so do not worry about it being a huge expense.

I would also say to adventure, seek new terrain, speak to the natives and do not get too attached to your own study abroad group. It is great to mingle every now and then with your fellow peers and have a nice group to go out with. Though by visiting different areas of the neighborhood, learning more about the country you are in on your own, and taking some nice day trips, you will be able to find friends that could make the experience all the more beautiful. You are able to interact on a personal level with the culture and possibly gain some exquisite cultural experiences from it. I was able to visit a traditional soba restaurant and see a beautiful temple, simply by talking to someone new.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Getting up, eating a delicious and cheap (only $1.00) breakfast at the cafeteria, then heading to class. Throughout the day we usually pass by and hang out with friends during our breaks and take some time to talk in the lounge of the school after the classes end. Going out to some of the sushi restaurants is also a favored pastime for many groups of friends! On the weekends we would go to karaoke, stroll by the main river (Kamogawa), go temple watching, and sometimes have picnics in the imperial palace's park or by the main river.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

Before studying abroad in Japan, I had many social anxiety issues that I felt entrapped within and thought that there was no possible way of overcoming them. I had always worried about Homelife in Texas, and was paranoid about everything in New York. Nightmarish was my reality. Due to this, part of me was still paranoid about what would happen abroad. However, in the depths of my heart I felt a bursting sense of joy and happiness at being able to go to Japan. I needed to escape the paranoid scene I had created around me and visit a place where I had always felt there was a special sense of peace to be found.

After landing in Japan, I felt a sense of relief and refreshment. From the moment of seeing the calm and balance of the airport area, I could tell I would be able to recover there. During that first train ride, from the airport to the center of Tokyo, seeing the brilliant scenery and hearing nothing but the wind, I started crying inside of everything I had been hoping for since I was young.

As more time passed, and studies commenced at the university, I was able to find friends who reoriented my life's compass back into its original direction and were able to help me on a path toward positivity and optimism. I actually switched to staying for one entire year instead of one semester because of how much more joyful I had become. One person in particular, a study abroad student from a program in Taiwan, became my closest friend and supporter during my time there. By simply talking about my past and experiencing day to day student life together with her, I was able to see brightness in my future and clear up all the mist which was darkening my life's map. I was able to join the main 'circle' (essentially the Japanese college concept of a club) and make friends through it.

So, in summary, by being open about my past and having trust in my own identity, I was able to find friends who helped me make a dream out of what was once a fear. Once I started dreaming, I noticed that each of the experiences I had gone through had taught me crucial lessons. The most important of those lessons is, to be one's self and always stay close to your own spirit.

I guess, in other words, one could say I was happily spirited away in Japan.

What was my favorite moment in Japan?

Ah, well, to choose one out of many is quite difficult since they were aplenty. One of my favorites was what I will call a day of the purple sky. Keep in mind that intercultural understanding and learning plays a large role in finding unexpected happiness in a place one has never been to before.

This day, a friend of mine that I had talked with countless times and I had decided to have dinner and walk around together one more time before the date of my departure came closer. We went to eat and during that time my friend gave me a few gifts. In Japan, gift giving is a large part of the culture. And when someone becomes close friends with another, they usually encapsulate many feelings of camaraderie and mutual joy within gifts, both small and large.

We spoke of life in our respective countries, and how we have worked strenuously, and proudly during our time studying abroad to chart a better future for ourselves and lead a life of brightness. To be completely open and honest, she is the first girl I had ever cried out of gratitude to. The first true friend of mine.

That night, we walked out onto the bridge near the train station, sat on a bench, and looked up into the sky and saw streaks of violet fluttering through the air on clouds and in the space in between. This is not only the most beautiful moment I had abroad, but also the most precious moment I have had in my life.

I found my true friend while studying abroad. Sometimes it takes going out of your day to day world in order to discover an aspect of harmony. One that will even make your own world a brighter place.