Tohoku University hosts an online get-together for its international alumni a couple of times a year. At the most recent event, held just before the new year, alumni members caught up with each other and with the latest news from the university.
Four members also gave shorts talks, sharing anecdotes about their student days in Sendai and offering some useful "sempai" advice to current students who will soon be graduating.
"My days in Sendai were some of the most treasured moments in my life," said Anandeeta Gurung, who's from Nepal. "Usually when you do a PhD, people say it's hard to balance the time you spend on your research with the fun things that you really want to do, but it can be done!"
Gurung especially enjoyed participating in traditional Japanese festivals like Aoba Matsuri. "I did the suzumeodori (Sparrow Dance) for two consecutive years and it was awesome."
But assimilating in a foreign country can be difficult, especially when there are language and cultural differences.
How to not be homesick
For Malaysian Mohd Hafizal Mohd Isa, the Tohoku University Buddy System - which pairs new international students with Japanese students who can provide local support - helped him settle down quickly when he first arrived in Sendai.
He participated in activities with the Malaysian community in Japan for the little comforts of home, but also joined a host family programme to get to know more about Japanese life and customs. "When you engage with local people in the community, you really feel more included. So rather than constantly thinking about how you are so far away from your family and home, you realise that there are people right there around you who care about you."
Selma Sumaya Awumbila, who's from Ghana, said that being part of the Tohoku Tourism Ambassadors programme encouraged her to explore cities around the region. She also joined the African Association of Miyagi, and made friends who became a good support network even after she returned to Ghana. "We all still stay in touch and help each other out. They are good friends and also good contacts for work."
Parichat Wetchayont was the only foreigner in her laboratory. "The guys in my lab were shy and didn't talk to me at all except to say hello and goodbye!" She heard that some Japanese offices have 'tea time' where colleagues take a mid-afternoon break, and decided to try it. "I made coffee and tea and invited everyone in my lab to join me. Once we started talking, things became a lot more comfortable and they even started helping me with my research."
Getting published (Or what to do when you get rejected)
For research students, getting published can be stressful and all-consuming, and alumni members were asked to share a few of their successful strategies.
Aside from achieving good or new results that have strong social impact, having an experienced co-author is also helpful, said Wetchayont. "When I was a PhD student, I always had my supervisor's name as the co-author. After I came back to Thailand and started submitting papers on my own, I found it much harder to get published. So having a well-known co-author makes the process a little easier."
Mohd Hafizal suggested being familiar with the journals' usual content and styles, and building relationships with them. "Sometimes, if you go with one journal and they reject you, they might recommend you to another journal under their label."
And of course, never give up. "Even when I got rejected, I kept working on the manuscript, trying to improve," said Wetchayont. "I would read the comments by the reviewers and see how I can make the paper better. If your research is good, eventually you will get published if you don't give up."
Career development and job hunting
For graduating students getting ready to join the workforce, the process of job hunting should have begun long before senior year. "If you wait until you graduate to start thinking about a job, you will face a lot of competition. I did a lot of internships while I was still in school, during summer and Christmas vacations, because I knew that was what was going to give me an edge over others," said Awumbila.
She added that finding internships which offer relevant experience is extremely important, "even if it doesn't pay much, or doesn't pay at all."
With the COVID-19 pandemic moving many businesses online, there are new opportunities to work remotely for companies around the world. "So when you're studying in Japan, you can still look for internships with companies in your home country. Some of them might hire you to work online from Japan, and that would also give you an edge when you return home later and want to work for them fulltime."
To get a job in Japan, alumni members said it's important to have good internship experiences, strong Japanese language skills and to be proactive in networking.
"I went to a lot of 'setsumeikais' (job explanation sessions) and did a lot of interviews. I would even travel to Tokyo to attend job seminars," said Gurung. "Even though all that didn't lead me directly to a job, the experience I got helped me understand the hiring process better and gave me more confidence for my interviews."
Gurung, who currently works for Japanese company EDOCODE Inc., also recommended using field-specific Japanese job sites where smaller companies and start-ups recruit from, and talking to the advisers at the Tohoku University Center for Career Support.
For more information on how to join the Tohoku University Alumni Association, please contact the "shuyukai" office or visit their website: https://shuyukai-tohoku-u.net/
The university has also just launched a new network for alumni all over the world to stay connected. Please visit the Tohoku University Alumni Network homepage to sign up.
Global Engagement Division, General Affairs and Planning Department
Tohoku University "shuyukai" Alumni Association Office