April 1, 2011

U of C affiliates flee Japan

As students on campus rush to raise funds for victims of the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan last month, at least half of the University’s students and personnel abroad have since fled the island nation.

A special group, made up of administrators and staff in the Office of International Affairs and the Office of Risk Management, Audit, and Safety, is coordinating efforts to keep track of the 16 people who were in the country on University business, including one researcher, one undergraduate in a study-abroad program, and 14 graduate students.

“This is something that’s been in transition ever since the earthquake. People are in different steps along the way of making plans,” said University spokesman Steve Kloehn.

Vice President of Student Life Kim Goff-Crews urged students to leave Japan as soon as possible in an open letter dated March 17. A number of students still remain, though many have changed locations within the country, Kloehn said.

Goff-Crews convened the administrative group in winter quarter to reassess University procedure when responding to international crises, such as January’s populist uprising in Egypt that saw the full evacuation of the University’s Cairo program.

The developing situation in Japan poses its own challenges, however, because most of the students there are graduates pursuing their own ends and research, rather than a large undergraduate abroad program in a single location. As a result, the University has been maintaining mostly individual communication with its people there.

“I think at this point, because we have one-on-one communication with each of the people involved…[the University’s response is] going to be less of a group mandate and more of a one-on-one assessment,” Kloehn said.

While Kloehn declined to reveal details about the one undergraduate student, a press release on the web site of the University’s Study Abroad Office indicated that the student was participating in Columbia University’s Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies. The Consortium suspended its on-site program “in light of the recent developments in northeastern Japan, and the increasing uncertainty of what lies ahead,” according to the statement.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Student Association (JSA) has begun organizing a large-scale effort to raise funding and awareness for victims of the tsunami and earthquake.

JSA members have raised $1,300 over the past four days through their Relief and Rebuild campaign, which pooled funds with the South Asian Student Alliance. Funds collected this week will go to the Japanese Red Cross, while everything raised from second week onward will go to Iwate University in northeastern Japan.

However, the campaign’s coordinators have a more long-term vision than simply providing monetary relief. Aside from collecting money, the JSA also aims to keep the University’s attention piqued as time wears on and media coverage of the crisis inevitably abates.

“When disasters happen, I feel like there’s always so much awareness about relief and so much money collected in the first initial period,” said Ariya Sasaki, a JSA member coordinating the campaign. She cited other natural disasters which prompted huge outpourings of support, such as Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, but which she said gradually faded out of the public consciousness.

“The moment when the world forgets about the sufferings of the people in the affected areas, that’s when it’s the hardest for the people [living there],” said Chihiro Yoshida, a JSA board member and international student from Tokyo.

To spread awareness, the JSO wants to coordinate with students, RSOs, and even faculty to create senbazuru, or a thousand folded paper cranes, a Japanese symbol for recovery and peace that has gained cultural significance since World War II.

The paper cranes are characteristic of what Yoshida calls a “byproduct” of the crisis and its aftermath: Japanese solidarity on campus.

“Of course, our aim is to support the people of Japan, to support my people back home,” she said. “But it’s great that, as a byproduct, as a result, we’re all coming together.”

Sasaki said she believes that any funds the JSA raises will be less consequential than the long-term benefits of keeping the University involved and informed, though it will continue its fundraising in the weeks to come.

The death toll from the tsunami and earthquake stands at 11,257, while another 16,344 remain missing, according to a March 31 UN Dispatch. All JSA members’ families are safe, Yoshida said, though at least one student has relatives who have lost their homes.