Our Stories

Getting an Education on the Streets of Portland

"Some students said the Take a Break trip is a very nice experience, but I had few English skills so I didn't have the courage to join," says Willamette senior Yuki Sugisawa '09.

Until last spring, that is, when Sugisawa signed on to spend eight days on the streets of Portland with the homeless. Willamette students organize the alternative spring break trips each year and fan out across the country, volunteering in homeless shelters, inner city schools and impoverished rural neighborhoods. Instead of a break at the beach, they take steps toward stewardship of their local and national communities, addressing literacy, poverty, racism, hunger, homelessness, HIV/AIDS and the environment.

"It was my first intense exposure to the volunteer experience," says Sugisawa. "We talked to the homeless people, and they were very kind. They tried to take care of each other and of us. For their community, we were visitors. We asked, 'Where are you from?' and asked about their lives, but we didn't ask directly. They are careful and so we used appropriate language."

Sugisawa met a man who has a wife, a job, no drug or alcohol problems, and a disability -- with no insurance. "I could tell he is a good person. He was reading newspapers to find a better life.

"This trip broke a lot of my stereotypes and made my point of view expand. If I don't talk to those who have different perspectives from my own, my vision will be very narrow. Before I thought studying was much more important, but now I know I need experience, too. For me, this connects my education and real life. Volunteering is important to understand how we are linked to each other."

Sugisawa has also mentored children at a local elementary school and will volunteer this year with Salem's Colonia Libertad, a Salem program that provides education and proper housing for Spanish-speaking immigrant farm workers. "I want to study the Latino culture," says Sugisawa, who began college at Tokyo International University of America (TIUA), a partner school to Willamette. "In class I have heard about how immigrants struggle to identify themselves in the U.S. I have the very same experience.

"Should I hang out more with my Japanese friends and talk Japanese, or should I hang out with Willamette friends and learn more English? Day by day, I'm changing here. Before, my only focus was to improve my English, but now I'm standing between the boulder that is Japanese society and the boulder that is U.S. society. It's difficult to categorize or identify myself, so I have a sympathy for Latin American immigrants."

Sugisawa, called the "philosopher of the trip" by his teammates, is majoring in international studies and hopes to work at the United Nations someday. "I would like to change even a little piece of the world."