Study Abroad Interview with Richard Wilkinson, UWT Associate Vice Chancellor for Organizational Effectiveness and Development

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Study Abroad definitely has a long-lasting impact, and Richard Wilkinson, UWT Associate Vice Chancellor for Organizational Effectiveness and Development, is proof of just how  transformative an undergraduate experience can be! Deciding to go to Japan for a whole year during his junior year at California State University, Los Angeles, Mr. Wilkinson was able to experience a culture vastly different from his own and have the adventure of a lifetime, encouraging him to expand his horizons and look at the world in a whole new way. “There were too many experiences that I might not have experienced had I stayed put!”

How does Study Abroad still have an impact on your life today?

It is easy to tell that Mr. Wilkinson’s study abroad is still a source of great joy for him as his face lit up and maintained an aura of excitement during our conversation. Having studied abroad in the early ‘70s, Mr. Wilkinson has managed to maintain excellent friendships he made during his year in Japan. “When I talk with my dear friend Dr. Yamamodo, we are able to pick up right where we left off, making jokes and reminisce. This deep connection is a reminder of one the most exciting years of my life!” Mr. Wilkinson has several friendships he maintains from his study abroad, and he says this is one of the major benefits impacting him today. However, there are many other skills that come from spending twelve whole months in a foreign country. Mr. Wilkinson took every opportunity he could, even spending a month on a dairy farm where he was only able to communicate in Japanese. “For me, my study abroad was mostly about travel—I wanted to make the most of my time!” Of course, he completed his homework and attended classes, but he admits he was not a stellar student when he attended college during his 20’s—even at home. Mr. Wilkinson states that the most rewarding thing about studying abroad [for anyone, really] is that it gets you out of your rut. You’re able to see things and do things that you wouldn’t do at home because we seem to tell ourselves that it can wait for someday. When you’re abroad for a limited amount of time, your ‘somedays’ are limited, so there’s less hesitating and more doing. 

Explain a situation you experienced abroad in which you gained a new skill:

Still in the stages of figuring out adulthood as a mere junior in college, Richard decided that going to Japan would be a fun way of discovering an emerging industry and new ally, but he also learned quite a bit about himself. Studying abroad in a decade void of many of the modern electronic conveniences made it next to impossible to contact people back home or get help via the internet in navigating an unknown culture, community and language. As result he had to rely on himself and friendship to get what he needed. The experience helped him gain basic problem solving skills like finding one’s way in unfamiliar landscapes, getting food, and all the other little life skills that are a part of becoming an adult. “I lived with a host family and the program director took really good care of us, but I still needed to take care of myself and as a result I earned quite a few essential life skills.” As mentioned above, Mr. Wilkinson decided to take on every opportunity he could manage, and as a result, he learned to play the Shamisen—a three stringed Japanese instrument. As well as practice in the martial art of Judo. Neither of these things were particularly long lasting upon his return, but he thoroughly enjoyed engaging in these opportunities while he was abroad.

How did Study Abroad change your perspective of the world and yourself?

“When you’re in a new place, especially for a short time, your curiosity is on overdrive,” Mr. Wilkinson starts. He enjoyed getting lost in Japan’s great and elegant artistic traditions. Looking at the different approach to artwork in which not all the space on the canvas needed to be filled up (the opposite of most American art) was really enjoyable for him. “Art in Japan is a national treasure that they want to keep alive and it really enhanced the appreciation I gained for it.” Mr. Wilkinson’s main change in perspective came because, “I got to be more creative!” Not just because of his new-found interest in traditional Japanese art but because his way of thinking about problems and his own country had expanded. Being able to look in at America and its history really changes and vastly expands what you know about its history. For example, Mr. Wilkinson, a California native, learned about the anti-Asian history of his home state in Japan. He feels that these different approaches and experiences are essential to growing as a person and can show you that the world is vast with a thousand different ways of looking in.

Describe a completely unexpected experience you had while you were abroad. What did you learn from it?

“Getting out there is where I learned the most.” During his year in Japan, Mr. Wilkinson sparked a romance with a young woman, which was an unexpected joy. Their connection persisted despite a language barrier and allowed for an even richer time abroad. From this unexpected romance came the experience that really left an impact on Mr. Wilkinson: the Hiroshima Peace Museum. When exploring together, this young lady decided to take him to the monument. “Being at ground zero was absolutely transformational,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “The radiation shadows seared on to the cement are all that’s left of several people, forever stuck in their last activity. Seeing something like that takes away the abstract history lessons we often hear about Hiroshima and makes it very tangible as you stare at the shadows.” This experience is something Mr. Wilkinson cherishes despite its emotionally draining effects. He thinks it is something every American should see.

How did Study Abroad positively affect your personal, professional and academic life?

“I experienced a reverse culture shock”, Mr. Wilkinson said. It was much harder for him to get back into the mundane parts of life back at home after such a life-changing journey. He tried to share his experiences, but there were no real opportunities to do so, especially since most people don’t care to hear about something they’ve never done. “It was weird to have changed so much and then realize everything around you had stayed the same.”  He also added, laughing, that his friend from Japan, Dr. Yamamodo, thought he should be a doctor. So, following his friend’s advice, Mr. Wilkinson decided to change his major from Political Science to medicine—this lasted a whopping two weeks, seeing as Mr. Wilkinson is a terrible chemist. In further attempts to add more excitement to his life back home, he tried to change schools to something more prestigious, however, he had a school advisor talk some sense in him and he finished his degree. Eventually, Mr. Wilkinson was able to jet-set again, this time to Africa and India for his work. “My desire to travel started in high school, and in time, I got to do that.”

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April 13, 2017