On March 11, 2011 at 2:46 p.m, Japan's most powerful earthquake hit the Asia Pacific. The quake was followed by a devastating tsunami, with waves as high as 130 feet. The country was further devastated by damage to the reactors at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that forced nearly 100,000 residents to evacuate. These three compounding disasters left UCEAP with a complex and challenging task.
The new academic term had not yet begun and UC students were scheduled to depart for Japan in a week. There were also 77 UC students midway through their year-long study in Japan. Their scattered whereabouts were not readily known that afternoon, as it also happened to be spring break in Japan.
The work that followed is well documented in the NAFSA International Educator March-April 2012 article entitled Overcoming Chaos by Christopher Cornell. The article highlights UCEAP, providing quotes from a UCSB student in her University of Tohoku lab at the time of earthquake, photos of two UC students from Sendai and UCEAP Japan staff subsequently gathered together in Tokyo, and citing the myriad challenges faced by UCEAP and other international programs operating in Japan. Within days all UCEAP students were located (with one far away visiting family in the Philippines, many traveling throughout Japan or Southeast Asia, a few who had returned home to visit family and friends in California, with two up in Sendai at school). The US Department of State issued a Travel Warning and the UC Office of the President suspended travel to Japan. The UCEAP International Health, Safety and Emergency Response Director worked with the UC assistance providers to schedule emergency evacuations for all students from their locations back to the U.S.. Within weeks, the Tokyo Study Center staff visited all student housing through Japan, cleaned the students’ residences and packed personal items for shipment to a UCSB warehouse from which UCEAP staff shipped the belongings to students’ addresses in the U.S.
UCEAP suspended all programming in Japan for the spring term 2011. After a careful assessment and many security briefings, a quick and informed decision was made to support student safety and to provide time to assess the situation in all partner locations. Students scheduled to depart from California were required to cancel their plans to study abroad; those already in Japan were not offered continued study in Japan. Japanese students studying as part of the UCEAP reciprocal exchange continued their studies in California. Japanese partner institutions were gracious, understanding and helpful in accommodating the UCEAP decision to support UC students’ health and safety.
A slow resumption of operations in Japan started the following year. Initially student interest was cautious but enrollment was better a full year following the earthquake—spring 2012-- when more was known about the extent of the impact on infrastructure and the health of citizens, students, their families and UC gained confidence.
In the five years since this disaster, continued gains have been made. New options have been developed with Japanese partners. A beginning Japanese language summer program and summer lab research program at Osaka University, a spring trimester (quarter) and spring plus internship semester programs at International Christian University, a spring semester at Hitotsubashi University and revamped summer lab sciences program at the University of Tokyo augment the many offerings already available.
The UCEAP International Health, Safety and Emergency Response (IER) Team and the UCEAP Japan staff are to be applauded for the diligence and service that has been, and continues to be provided in the face of such challenges, extensive program locations, ongoing global events, and changes in study abroad. The University of California Education Abroad Program is one of the few institutions in the country with an office dedicated to international health, safety and emergency related to UCEAP programming around the world. Health, safety and emergency response at UCEAP follows a team approach, which includes local staff, staff in California, the students and UCEAP assistance providers. The UCEAP robust emergency preparedness, response, and contingency plans are continuously reviewed and updated after every major incident. The UCEAP IER Team maintains the highest standards of service through staff training, best practices within the field, and 24/7 global monitoring and assessment of UCEAP programming around the world. UCEAP is able to provide the highest quality of care, oversight, and due diligence in UCEAP operations both in California and abroad.
Looking back, UCEAP Japan started in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, when the initial exchange cohort of twenty UCEAP students came to study in a small liberal arts college in the suburb of Tokyo. Just as the 1964 Tokyo summer games marked the first Olympic ceremonies in Asia, UCEAP’s partnership with our Japanese host institutions is considered to be the first student exchange agreement in Asia with a U.S. institution of higher learning. And now, more than 50 years after the first UCEAP cohort arrived in Japan, and five years following the temporary suspension of our programs, everyone feels the buzz and excitement in the air as UCEAP anticipates our strongest ever enrollment in programs in Japan, just as Japan is gearing up to host its second summer Olympics in 2020. Continuing both tradition and innovation, this is surely an indication that international education goes hand in hand with international competition and friendship.