When I first heard from my seniors about the possibility of pursuing a Double Degree in Japan – where your hard work is rewarded with a diploma from your home university and another one from your foreign host university –, I honestly thought nothing in the world could make me do this. The prospect of large amounts of work and having to sit for hours locked away in my room behind a desk really frightened me. I was thinking how it would really be a pity to go to Japan, but not see anything of the country I have been studying about all these years.
But things didn’t go as planned. As Nara Women’s University (NWU) was looking for an exchange student, my home university KU Leuven (KUL) thought of me. I was given the choice between three possible trajectories: a Double Degree for one or one and a half year, an ordinary exchange of one year, or two master years at NWU. The last option I didn’t consider at all – two years seemed way too long and I really wanted my KUL diploma. However, I was hesitant about the Double Degree, despite my initial doubts. It seemed foolish to throw this opportunity away, so I visited the head of our Japanology Department. He convinced me that I would certainly succeed, almost laughing away my suggestion of failure. ‘Why don’t you just try? If it is too difficult, you can just switch to the ordinary trajectory.’ Keeping these words in mind, I decided on ‘just’ doing the Double Degree Program for one year.
However, nothing had prepared me for what was to come. Japanese are known as hard-working people, and those standards are often also applied on foreigners. I’d barely just arrived, and all eyes were instantly set on my research. I had pictured myself strolling around in the library, looking for useful literature at my own pace, reporting to my supervisor what progression I had made so far. Instead, an advisor was appointed to me. She is expected to assist me in my research, despite not being completely familiar with my research topic – but neither is my supervisor. And my advisor certainly helps! She is so absorbed in my research that it almost seems to be her own. When we seem to come to a dead end and I mention something I’ve read somewhere, she instantly sets her hope on it, no matter how vague my suggestion was, and suddenly I have to read up on side matters rather than the main topic of my research. It has now been about two months, and she already bought me seventeen books and copied thousands of pages for me to look into. As sweet and helpful as she may be, just thinking about all the things I’m expected to do, makes me break out in sweat.
Another thing is that I appear to be a quick reader according to their standards of an exchange student. My advisor compliments me quite often on it – “Your spoken Japanese may not be so fluent, but you are extremely quick at reading”, which I guess can be called a compliment – and my reading skills seem to encourage both my supervisor and advisor to give me even more reading material. At the same time, they move forward the deadlines by which they expect me to read the appointed sources because of my quick reading.
Double Degree student or not, studying in a foreign country can be hard at times. The KUL has now appointed two teachers who will provide mental support to students who need it, as the long stay abroad in Japan has been proven to be very challenging for some.
Speaking for myself, homesickness seems to be okay so far. I was really devastated and cried buckets when I parted from my family at the airport, but once arrived in Japan, I was alright. To me, imagining what it is like to live apart from my family for a year, was in a way harder than actually being away from them. Furthermore, I’m extremely blessed that my boyfriend Hänsel only lives and studies two hours away, which is not unbridgeable. Despite having lots to do, we have succeeded to meet once a week until now, which is something that I can look forward to and prevents me of becoming too lonely, which I otherwise certainly would.
I’m not that great at making friends, have never been, and making friends in a different culture and speaking in a different language, despite a preparation of three and a half years, is even more difficult. Still, everyone is really nice to me, which I really appreciate and I sometimes talk to Japanese students, although our conversations are mostly limited to my origin and research. It is also difficult to become friends with other exchange students, primarily because I don’t see a lot of them. Speaking of which, I am the only European and aside from one Argentinian girl, all others are Asian.
Ironically, as a result of doing a Double Degree, I’m not taking up any Japanese language courses where foreign students have a chance to get to know each other. I also barely cook, narrowing down the possibility to meet someone new in the kitchen. In this case, rather than being too busy, my own laziness is to blame. I did attempt to prepare a meal once, but that went horribly wrong as I cut myself deeply in the thumb with my newly bought knife. It just wouldn’t stop bleeding and I began panicking, so I asked my neighbour to help me, and meanwhile I didn’t only mess up my room, but hers as well. It was all one big horror scene.
Going back to the main topic of my blog: does pursuing a Double Degree imply that you only get half the fun compared to those who follow an ordinary trajectory? Not necessarily. There is still some time to explore the area and to meet old or new friends. Furthermore, a Double Degree can boost your CV, certainly for someone like me, who can’t think of many experiences worth mentioning. Moreover, you have to write a thesis for your home university anyway and since most universities that offer Double Degree programs allow you to write a thesis that is (more or less) the same as the one for your home university, you won’t necessarily be doing lots of additional research, but it may depend on the university. Keep in mind that usually, you have less freedom when choosing courses or even which sources to consider for your research.
All things considered, if I were asked whether I would recommend pursuing a Double Degree, I would say yes, but only to those who are really up for a challenge. If you don’t mind having less freedom to compose your programme while facing higher expectations, and if you’re not too scared by the idea of having to complete a programme that usually takes two years for Japanese students to complete in half that time, I can’t see why not.