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Japanese Exchange Student Helps the Homeless in San Francisco

by Connie K. Ho | March 5th, 2012

In March 2011, an earthquake of tremendous magnitude hit the eastern coast of Japan. A number of countries rushed to support Japanese residents with an outpouring of financial and material assistance. A year later, a Japanese exchange student returns the favor with her own volunteerism in southern California. Emiri Shigeoka, an exchange student from Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, recently attended a week-long service learning trip in San Francisco where she learned not only about the American culture but also worked on projects that focused on alleviating poverty.

Shigeoka, first heard about a trip from a student who lived at the International Peace and Conflict Studies house at the University of California, Irvine. She was immediately interested in participating when she heard that the trip would be focused on youth homelessness. With the service learning initiative of homelessness, the Economics and International Studies major hoped she would learn about the social issues in the U.S.

During the week she was in San Francisco, Shigeoka had the opportunity to work with seven different organizations. She  engaged in a number of activities including attending presentations about the homeless populations in northern California, assembling boxes of food to give away at a shelter for low income families, and working at a food bank. The experience was humbling.

“There were so many more people in need than I expected, I was surprised,” said Shigeoka. “I felt the need to do something to help people. In Japan, community service is not popular. It was a very good experience for me to join this program.”

While volunteering, Shigeoka had a particularly poignant experience. Towards the end of the week, she volunteered at the Glide Foundation, a group affiliated with St. Anthony’s, where she served lunch to poverty stricken residents. She describes a conflicted moment where she spoke to a 58 year old female, who was recently injured but wasn’t able to secure medical treatment.

“I was moved very much, I don’t know how to express everything that I felt, compassion, admiration, and more. I was really happy when people told me ‘Thank you’ because I realized I was helping people,” remarked Shigeoka. “But I was really sad because I realized that there were a lot of people who didn’t have stable lives and it made me sad. I have pleasure helping people, but at the same time I feel so sad because I realize the seriousness about their situation. I had so many feelings at the same time.”

Based on her experience in San Francisco, Shigeoka would recommend that other international student participate in similar service learning projects to learn about their host culture.

“Through volunteering, I was able to learn about the American culture, learn how to help people, how to contribute to society,” explained Shigeoka. “We can help people and, at the same time, we can learn for ourselves. We can learn many things from volunteering.”

Emiri Shigeoka is an exchange student originally from Kanagawa, Japan. She studies at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan and also at the University of California, Irvine as an exchange student. During her time as an exchange student, she has traveled to numerous places including Arizona, Massachusetts, and New York.

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