Watanabe credits personal growth to cross-cultural experiences at WU

by University Communications,

As commencement approaches, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the first of our four-part series.

From her first day as a Willamette University student, Tana Watanabe ’14 had mapped out her future.

She would major in economics, immerse herself in campus life and learn about Japanese language and culture. She’d also study abroad, form close ties with her professors and pursue leadership positions at nearby Tokyo International University of America.

Watanabe achieved all her goals, and more. Now, weeks away from graduating, the Willamette senior is considering her next options — ranging from interning with a corporate public relations firm in Chicago to working as an assistant language teacher for the Japan Exchange Teaching program in rural Japan.

“It’s very comforting knowing that I have some really great options for the future, ones that I know I will really enjoy,” Watanabe says. “I wanted to leave Willamette with a full, well-rounded education, and I got that.”

Cross-Cultural Exchange

When deciding which university to attend, the Washington native looked no further than Willamette. She liked that it was a small, liberal arts school. She knew the professors were accessible, and she valued Willamette’s focus on connecting students with job-training opportunities.

She was most intrigued, though, by the university’s relationship with Tokyo International University in Japan. Sister universities since 1965, Willamette and TIU have worked together to create opportunities for their students to interact and learn from one another.

One way is through the American Studies Program. The program enables students from Asian countries — most of whom are from TIU — to spend a year taking language arts and language courses at Willamette and Tokyo International University of America.

“TIUA was one of the biggest reasons I chose Willamette,” Watanabe says. “Gaining cross-cultural experiences has always been really important me. I enjoy people who challenge the convention of how I think.”

For that reason, Watanabe has worked with the American Studies Program since her freshman year. At TIUA, she served as an international peer coach and a summer community associate — jobs that empowered her to plan trips and events, organize weekly meetings and mentor the study abroad students.

“I’ve loved working with ASP students,” Watanabe says. “The best part is seeing the joy on their faces when they realize they’ve done something really impactful. Seeing that sense of accomplishment is really enjoyable for me.”

Sarah Shinn, the associate director of Student Life at TIUA, says Watanabe has succeeded in building stronger intercultural understandings and friendships among ASP and Willamette undergraduate students.

“Tana is the type of leader who builds up people around her,” she says. “She has mentored ASP students, not by being the loudest voice in the room, but through unparalleled patience.”

Shinn was especially impressed when Watanabe created the Willamette Closet two years ago. Through the program, which existed for a year, Watanabe collected formal attire and rented them out to Willamette and ASP students for the Black Tie dance.

“I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is a creative, innovative student who is going to become an outstanding leader over the next few years,’” Shinn says. “She didn’t prove me wrong. Her positive impact on the American Studies Program and the Willamette community will endure long after she graduates.”

Becoming a Leader

Intent on making the most of her Willamette experience, Watanabe studied abroad in Japan in 2012. She wrote a literature review on a carbon tax study through a Legislative Revenue Office internship, and she planned campus events through the Willamette Events Board.

Emily Morris, the associate director of Student Activities, oversaw Watanabe through this latter role. Describing the graduating senior as a passionate and caring person, Morris says Watanabe has devoted herself to making Willamette as inclusive as possible.

“I think she’s awesome,” Morris says. “She has an ability to see a need and act on it. That’s what I find most impressive about her. She is a really great leader and so friendly and personable. I will really miss our conversations.”

For Watanabe, the close relationships she’s forged with staff and faculty members have played a strong role in her development.

“You get out what you put into it,” she says. “I expected to have these kinds of relationships at Willamette, and I haven’t been disappointed.”

Eager to start the next phase of her life, Watanabe says Willamette has prepared her for what lies ahead.

“I am very excited for the future and very grateful for all of the options in front of me,” she says. “My experiences, both inside and outside of the classroom, have prepared me to confidently step into the real world and set about achieving my goals.”