By Samuel Brustad
You’re drinking black coffee in a pretentious café on a cobbled street, tabs for Skyscanner and AirBnB open on your laptop. This is the situation of a twenty-something exchange student abroad in Europe. This is where I find myself, but not somewhere I ever expected to be. Because I am already an ‘exchange’ student, I have been through these now familiar routines of adjustment in Japan, which is where I have lived for 2 years. That is until just a couple of months ago when I decided to up and leave the place I had started to call home to start again, again.
The PEAK programme is somewhat unique in that it draws in people from around the world to a new and exciting environment and then sends them back out again in the hopes of becoming ‘global’ students of the 21st century. Thanks to the University of Tokyo I have been able to attend four different universities in four different continents over the last 2 years. I have nailed the 5-point self-introduction and made a huge amount of friends from all sorts of places. But these very advantages, these new aspects of my life that I have so loved, have also brought with them an incredible sense of isolation. In the familiar unfamiliarity I have lost something, a tangible home and a sense of security.
So is there value in doing it all again? As PEAK students should we push ourselves to unsettle our newly ordered worlds and head off again to some far flung part of the world? Especially when we more than most can already appreciate how difficult that is. I say yes, for many of the same reasons that saw us venture abroad in the first place. This whole experience is teaching me a lot. In particular, coming to PEAK I have had to come to a lot of unsettling conclusions about myself and the world around me. I am much less content being alone than I first thought, I have far more white privilege than I realised and most people around the world are really far more similar than they are different. But from my time on exchange however, I see now that like it or not PEAK will also irrevocably change me in ways that I couldn’t possibly have known until I took a step away from it. While I for one still have no clue what I want to do with my life, I realise now that Japan as much as New Zealand has become a part of me.
It may be one of the more first-world of first-world problems, but identity is something that shapes us all. PEAK students are lucky in that we get to straddle the borders of so many divisive issues, culture, religion, nationality; we get the rare gift of perspective. We are the third culture children that occupy the middle ground. But the middle ground is a lonely place. So instead of fighting for a home and a sense of normalcy, it seems far more productive to get out there and meet new people, make new memories and live your own adventure. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our own confusing web of thoughts and identity crises that we forget to truly utilise the gift we have been given. That is to use our fresh perspectives to come to a better understanding of the world around us and then work out where we fit into that. That is what an exchange has to offer PEAK students. Beyond the incredible academic value, connections and travel opportunities, you get to continue the adventure that you started right back when you made the decision to matriculate into Tōdai. You get to keep pushing yourself and your understanding of the world around you.
So I’m going to try to forget my self-indulgent complaints and realise that what I have is the world before my feet. I’ll keep sipping my coffee, reopen Skyscanner, and start planning my next adventure.
Sam Brustad is a 3rd-year student in the PEAK Japan in East Asia Program at the University of Tokyo.