Alumni Spotlight: Sophia Ellinas

Sophia is a high school student going into senior year from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She went to Japan for 11 months through AFS and came back halfway through her junior year, which was an experience. She loves to write and draw and learn languages.

What do you wish someone had told you before you went abroad?

A young woman posing for a photo.

I wish someone had told me how it was to be a Caucasian in Japan. In a place where everyone has the same hair color, same skin color, same general facial shape and form, to be a pale skinned, light brown haired, foreigner girl was extremely strange.

People would look at me on the train, sitting in my school uniform, and know that I was an exchange student just from that. People would also assume that I could not speak Japanese because of my appearance, and would almost always try to communicate with me in English instead of Japanese.

It felt really lonely, to look so different from everyone else, even your own host family. Now, in the USA, everyone looks different from each other, so it doesn't matter whether you are pale-skinned, dark-skinned, or anywhere in between.

But in a country with few foreigners to be seen, I stood out like a sore thumb. It was an interesting and eye-opening experience, and not a bad one at all; I just wish that maybe someone could have told me something about what it's like before I went (perhaps to brace myself!).

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

The most important thing I learned while abroad was the importance of keeping an open mind. I remember landing in Japan and thinking to myself, 'OK Sophia, you have to be open to anything, any food, any person, any culture, anything.'

Of course, that wasn't exactly the easiest thing to achieve. I am a naturally introverted person, so meeting and trying to interact with new people was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

Also, the way a new culture comes at you is difficult to handle, and it makes you want to crawl into your own little shell. I realized that if I ever wanted to learn Japanese language and culture, which I did, I would have to be brave come out of that shell.

So I did my best to make friends and be a good daughter to my host family, and it was a fun experience for me. So always try to stay open-minded about new experiences, even if you have some apprehensions about it beforehand, because it might turn into an extremely valuable adventure.

A group of people posing for a picture.

What was hardest part about going abroad?

The hardest part of going abroad for me was being away from my family. Most of my friends were completely fine with being away from their families, but for some reason it affected me quite a bit throughout my trip.

Maybe it was that my Japanese family was so different from my American family. Or maybe it was that I didn't have a smart phone to contact my family though the entire experience.

Either way, I found it difficult to be away from my family and not go on vacations with them, not spend holidays (especially Christmas, which the Japanese don't celebrate) with them.

On the other hand, I got to experience a Japanese New Year, which was wonderful and full of food and fun, which I never would have if I had spent the year at home instead.

Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.

During my stay in Japan, I went to an all girls high school. That in and of itself was an experience that I never could have had at home. In the USA, we do have all girls high schools, but not quite in the way Japan does.

I went to school every day by train (1.5 hours each way!) in my school uniform- a blue knee length skirt and a sailor top, a green scarf, black tights and two different pairs of shoes, one for walking to school, one while at school.

Then I spent the day at school, going through classes all in Japanese and spending time with classmates. I took ikebana, or flower arrangement, as well as sadou, tea ceremony, and a chemistry class here and there!

Honestly, those classes were enjoyable and interesting, and something I never could have done at home.

Food spread

What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?

I went into Japan wanting to know more about the Japanese culture, language, and also having NO idea of what I wanted to do in college or anywhere in the future. After my exchange, however, I realized that I did truly love languages, and wanted to explore more.

I want to study linguistics in college and take many more languages. I now know how important languages are and I want to learn more about their history and how they came to be.

I also know what I want to do during my senior year, which is take some extra Japanese classes at a local college to keep it up. Before going to Japan, I was uncertain of my future, but now at least I have some sort of plan!