A small but active group of students at a university in Japan are putting — and keeping — the Pacific islands on the map.
Majuro’s Kelly Lorennij is an active member of the group known as Oceania Students Association at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. The Journal spoke with Kelly and three of the other Oceania Students Association members recently to learn more about their experience at this university in Japan. APU describes itself as “the most international university in Japan” and sports an expansive international student body to prove it.
Kelly is a graduate of both Laura High School and College of the Marshall Islands (and was valedictorian for both schools).
In addition to Kelly, OSA includes students from the Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa and other island countries, as well as other countries in the world — in keeping with island students’ embracing other cultures and nationalities.
OSA President Gillian Eiko Shigeta of the FSM and Kelly are both studying Environment and Development, and Gafatasi “Tasi” Sua Palesoo from Samoa and Erfan Atoofi from Iran are studying International Management.
All of the students expressed great enthusiasm for APU and encouraged students in the islands thinking about a college education to consider attending APU.
“Only a few students (from FSM) are going to university in Japan,” said Gillian. “I saw it as a great opportunity (to study in Japan).” She added attending APU has given her the chance to learn Japanese and she finds APU to be a “very safe environment.”
Tasi said she chose Japan “because the culture and values of Japan are in harmony and its a peaceful place to live.” She said she also liked the idea that the Japan International Cooperation Agency scholarship allows her work in internships with Japanese organizations while attending APU, giving her a chance to get hands-on experience in procedures and systems, which relate to her study field.
“Japan is a good place for students,” said Erfan. He also pointed to the benefit of being able to work part time to earn money to support their needs. The school allows students to work up to 28 hours during class time and 40 hours a week during breaks. He also pointed out that the scholarships available are really good for Pacific students.
Kelly, who receives scholarship support from both Japan and the Marshall Islands government, said the Oceania Student Association “attracted me to attend APU because of the Oceania ‘circle’ at the school. It’s a community here for Pacific Islanders who are homesick.”
When Covid hit in early 2020, it forced all school club activities to stop. So OSA was in hibernation for 18 months. In recent months, OSA members regrouped and are back to leading cultural events and showcasing the Pacific islands at APU.
“This university provides a unique opportunity share our culture,” said Kelly.
The new student entrance program on April 1 offered OSA an opportunity to shine. OSA members were invited to perform as part of the official welcoming ceremony.
Gillian said she took a gap year after graduating from high school in order to focus on learning Japanese. Through a Japan exchange program she added to her then-rudimentary Japanese language. Her first year in Japan she spent in what she described as a “Japan cram school” to learn the basics of writing in Japanese.
“When I first arrived, I had zero knowledge of Japanese,” said Tasi. “But because of we are here for three-to-four years, we must learn Japanese. We need to learn it.” She added: “APU has lots of support systems for students to learn and exile in it.”
Kelly also began learning Japanese while at school in Majuro, taking classes with Japanese teachers to develop her skill. It gave her a head start.
“If we can do it (learn Japanese), everyone can do it,” Kelly said.
Erfan is a good example of this. “In Iran, almost no one knows Japanese,” he said. Erfan had the opportunity to first come to Japan with his family when his father got a job in Japan. Later, before he started school in Japan, he took Japanese classes in Iran, and spent his first several semesters in Japanese courses. “I reached a certain level of conversational Japanese,” he said.
Each of the four commented on many highlights of life in Japan:
• Tasi: “The transport system is so convenient. And it’s on time. There is no excuse for being
• Gillian: “Japan is a food paradise.”
• Erfan: “We are very safe here (which is very different) from the region where I come from.”
• Kelly: “(The best thing) is the environment. My dad jokes that in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve never been sick, only after getting the Covid vaccine.”
Gillian pointed out there are plenty of educational opportunities for students from Pacific islands, but often people don’t take advantage of these. “Islanders don’t want to get out of their comfort zone,” she said. “We’re so comfortable (at home).”
Still, she said, “I encourage islanders to go out, set foot outside of your home islands to get experience. It’s very hard but it’s so much fun as you get to know about yourself. Being in a new environment opens things up for you. It’s worth the experience.”
Tasi said in the South Pacific, a lot of students “opt to study in New Zealand and Australia. There are a lot of Pacific Islanders there. But pulling away from that comfort zone and learning to be independent is a great opportunity to grow as a person.”
Kelly’s observation: “Kõttar ta?” (“What are you waiting for?”)
Both Kelly and Gillian are scheduled to graduate in March next year, Erfan the following year and Tasi, who only arrive last year, expects to graduate in 2026.
The Oceania Student Association at the Asia Pacific University in Japan keeps in touch with each other and friends on social media: https://www.facebook.com/apuoceania and https://instagram.com/apu_oceania?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=