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Scholar Profile: Ryan Rios ’20

By Lizzy Moore on November 26, 2017

Ryan Rios, holding his Baritone Saxophone, in Starr Rink, where the Raider Pep Band rehearses. Ryan is the secretary for the band.


This interview was conducted with Ryan Rios, a sophomore in the Alumni Memorial Scholars Program intending to double major in Japanese and Computer Science. This past summer, Ryan researched how websites determine what language to display their content in.


Could you tell me a bit about your high school experience? What kinds of things were you involved in? How has that translated into your involvement at Colgate?

I went to a small all-male Lasallian school known as Cathedral High School in the heart of Los Angeles, right by Dodger Stadium. The school didn’t really have any clubs to speak of, but I was involved in my high school’s pep band- where I learned to play the sax- concert band, drum line, and jazz band- where I started playing bass publicly and not just in my room. Jazz band was my favorite extracurricular activity because it’s how I came to love jazz music, and there aren’t many more things that I like more than playing bass in a jazz setting. I’m still in pep band and jazz band at Colgate, and I honestly think that if it weren’t for joining pep band last year, my experience here would be very different.

My love for jazz music has also turned into me hosting two different radio shows with WRCU this semester after having done only one show last year. One show I host by myself and try to play a mix of jazz and rock (Wednesdays 10-11 AM EST), and the other show I host with a really good friend and we try to play jazz from a variety of eras while throwing in a few non-jazz songs here and there (Thursdays 3-4 PM EST). Like a lot of other people here, I took a lot of AP classes in high school and I think that helped prepare me for the rigor of some the classes here at Colgate.

Ryan plays his bass during Jazz Band rehearsal. The group rehearses twice a week.

What are you involved in at Colgate? What kinds of classes have you taken? What has been your favorite thing to study?

At Colgate, I’m involved with pep band, jazz band, the student wind ensemble, Smash Club, WRCU, and ballroom. Pep Band definitely takes up most of my time, but I’m happy being in it because it’s where I’ve met some of my closest friends—not just at Colgate, but in general.

Aside from the core classes, I’ve taken computer science and Japanese classes, and not much else because I took two core classes my first two semesters and two computer science classes this semester. My FSEM was Cities of the Silk Road, which was a history class on civilizations that were along the Silk Road. I thought it was interesting because it the class was on a part of the world I hadn’t really taken a class on, and being able to make food from that part of the world for class was a fun experience.

I also really like my Japanese classes because they’re smaller than the already small classes at Colgate and most of my friends that I didn’t meet through pep band I met through my Japanese classes. Computer science can be stressful, but I don’t mind most of the time because it’s a subject I’m genuinely interested in. My Japanese classes have by far been my favorite though. The professors in the department are all very approachable, and learning a language that is so different from English can be hard but it’s rewarding, especially when you pick up something like a children’s book or watch a children’s show and can get a general idea of what’s going on.

Ryan hosts his radio show with WRCU


What made you decide to work at Colgate this summer? Could you tell me what kind of work you did?

I wanted to work at Colgate this summer because I didn’t have anything else planned for the summer and I figured that getting research experience as a rising sophomore would be a good thing to do. The research I did was with the computer science department. I had genuine interest in the project I ended up working on, which was led by Professor Sommers.

I learned how to do things that I didn’t learn in the classroom. When someone uses the internet, whatever website is being visited has multiple ways to choose what language to display the content of the page in. It isn’t always clear which websites use which methods though. Some websites use the geographical location of the user, others base it off what language the user has indicated they would prefer to see content in through the settings in their browsers, and others still might base it off of what the user has said they preferred during a past visit to the website. It could also be none of these things, but it’s difficult to say definitively one way or another.

My research partner and I had to write a program that would visit websites ranked by popularity according to alexa, and tell us what language the content was displayed in taking into account what languages we said we wanted to see and whether or not we were using a proxy- and if so, from where. Professor Sommers is still doing research, as we were doing a lot of the preliminary work, but a lot of websites seem to not follow the general guidelines web developers agree should be followed.

How are you planning on using your AMS funding? Are you planning on studying abroad?

Admittedly, it’s not something I’ve given much thought, but I might be using my AMS funding to go to Japan roughly a year from now. I’ll be studying abroad there next semester, which I’m definitely excited for- although I’m not exactly sure what I would want to do in Japan with my AMS funding. I might go to a language school, but I haven’t decided that that’s what I want to do. One of the focuses of my study abroad group is sustainability in more rural areas of Japan, so I might try to investigate how technology has impacted and continues to impact rural Japan. However, I don’t know how feasible that would be with such a great language barrier, as Japanese as it is spoken in urban Japan is very different from Japanese as it is spoken in rural Japan. Regardless, I hope I get to do something related to that!

What are some of your favorite things about studying at Colgate? What do you think can improve? Do you see yourself playing a role in that improvement over the next three years?
I really like that the classes at Colgate tend to be small, so it’s easy to find people to befriend and study with. Also, if anything, most of the people here seem to really take their studies seriously which I will admit was a pleasant surprise. So many people in my classes are also just really approachable, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I haven’t had anyone to interact with in a particular class while at Colgate. We’re all willing to help each other for the most part, and while there’s friendly competition between people I’ve never gotten the sense that someone thinks they’re too good to help other people when asked to or anything like that. The upperclass people also seem more than willing to help the underclass people, and it’s really nice to have people, who’ve been through what you’re struggling with, take a genuine interest in helping you.

I think that the core curriculum could definitely be approved. A lot of the reading assigned for Legacies of the Ancient World, specifically, is by European white men. I think the texts we read in that class were definitely worth the read, but it feels as if the class doesn’t embody the concept of “the ancient world” when most of the readings generally don’t reflect the entire world. I would appreciate if more of the readings came from different parts of the world, which my professor definitely tried to do. I don’t know exactly how I would go about enacting that change, but it would be nice to help with that change.

Have you thought about what you’d like to do after college?

I’m not too sure what I want to do after college. I know that I definitely want to major in computer science and Japanese, but I’m just not sure what I want to do with those degrees because there’s a lot I can do. If possible, I’d like to get into a field that somehow incorporates both.

The research I did this summer left me interested in how people who are either multilingual or come from a non-English speaking area use the internet and how the internet can be made more accessible for them. In general, I think that making technology more accessible for people that don’t speak English is interesting because we tend to forget that not all of the world speaks English, and it’d be cool if technological innovations weren’t always held back by a language barrier from spreading into more parts of the world. This obviously shouldn’t be an issue with huge companies, but at the same time you run into issues where if you purchase something in the United States you might be forced into using that product in English. It’s not an issue for most people, but many people in the US don’t speak English either, so it’d be interesting to see how we can help knock down language barriers in our world more and more.

Scholar Profile: Jacob Pilawa ’20

By Lizzy Moore on September 24, 2017

This interview was conducted with Jacob Pilawa, a sophomore in the Alumni Memorial Scholars Program intending to major in Astronomy/Physics. This past summer, Jacob researched quasars with Professor Balonek at Foggy Bottom Observatory. 

Could you tell me a bit about your high school experience?

I went to a high school in Cleveland called Saint Ignatius High School. It’s an all-male Jesuit school, so it was pretty unique in that sense. I spent most of my time in high school doing Science Olympiad, robotics, those kinds of STEM extracurricular activities. I was also a diver for a little bit, on the swimming and diving team. I think it was like the high school experience of most students at Colgate, where you’re taking as many AP classes as you can, trying to get college credit, and things like that. I pushed myself pretty hard in high school.

Was there anything in particular that motivated you to work hard?

It was really that I wanted to prove to myself that I could do things. Probably the most important teacher I ever had was named Father Lawrence Ober. He taught my art history class, and you wouldn’t think that would be something that an astronomy/physics major would want to study. But it was the most inspiring class because he really gave me this love of learning and not just love of school. He was very motivational and would always say things like “Charge on,” or “You’ve got this, you know everything.” He taught me a love of learning, not a love of good grades. That is what kept me going during really tough classes. I would tell myself, “Hey, I’m taking this class because I love learning it, I just have to keep going.”

I really found learning fun and looked forward to learning new things, so when I came to Colgate, I decided I wasn’t going to do anything halfway, I would go all out. I would do it, do it well, and love what I’m doing. That’s not to say that I always enjoy hard weeks or finals time, but it’s always in the back of my mind that I’m doing this because I love it. There’s that expression, “Do what you love, love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” So that love for what I’m learning is what really keeps me going.

Jacob adjusts the telescope in Foggy Bottom Observatory

Can you tell me what kinds of things you’re involved in at Colgate outside of class?

I did research here over this past summer, and now I’m continuing it into the academic year. I’m in Star ‘Gate, which is the astronomy and astrophotography club. I’m in running club- I like running, so why not? And I’m in physics club, of course.

Of the classes you’ve taken, what have been your favorites?

My favorite class so far has been Introduction to Mechanics with Professor Levine in the physics department. In high school physics, you talk about a ball rolling down a hill or something. But, in that class, we took those same concepts and applied them to the movements of the stars and things like that. In a typical problem, instead of a ball going in a circle, we’d have a planet orbiting the sun. Having that real application to things that I love talking about was really great. So that was far and away my favorite class.

What made you decide to conduct research at Colgate this summer?

The computer where Jacob and Professor Balonek collected their data this summer

This comes back to what I was saying earlier about a love of learning and a desire to learn more. Last year, it came time to apply and I was thinking about what I was going to be doing with my summer. I saw that summer research positions opened up at Colgate and I thought that I might as well give it a shot. I was a first-year, so I wasn’t expecting to get anything because there were probably way more qualified people.

I applied to this and a couple others, but this was my top choice. I wrote an essay about why I wanted to do this research and what my future interests are. And then I got the email in February that I’d been selected and I freaked out in the library. I was doing a physics problem set and I was like, “This has to be a joke. I’m going to make money doing things that I love doing in the summer and learn more from it.” I guess I just gave it a shot- it’s better than an office job.

Could you tell me a bit more about what you researched?

This summer we worked on these objects called quasars. Basically, at the centers of super far-away galaxies, there are supermassive black holes: black holes with a mass hundreds of thousands to millions of times our sun. So, these are incredibly big objects, the most massive things we’ve ever discovered in the universe. And in super distant galaxies, around some of them there is this gas and plasma that’s falling into these black holes. Because of things that Einstein did with special and general relativity, this actually shoots out two beams of light from the black hole. We study how that light changes over time. Basically, we’re looking at the centers of galaxies and seeing how their brightness changes.

Jacob: “This is a photo of the object NGC 6946, also called the Fireworks Galaxy. It’s a spiral galaxy 22 million light-years away and is called the Fireworks Galaxy because of how frequently stars undergo a supernova. Over the last 100 years, we’ve observed 10 stars explode in this galaxy. The photo was taken with Foggy Bottom Observatory’s 16″ Cassegrain telescope and FLI CCD camera.”


So, most of my nights this summer, I worked from about 10pm to 5am at this computer. We’d focus on about six objects a night and take pictures of them. We’d get our data from these images and we’d generate curves of their brightness over time. I’m continuing to research that during the academic year. When I find time, I come up here at nights and work. Hopefully, we’re going to write a paper about our findings of a specific object called OJ 287 and then I’ll be presenting at the KNAC (Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium) Conference in October. That’s at Colgate, so that’ll be pretty cool. This is the research that Professor Balonek has been researching here for the past thirty years, so I’m just carrying on the torch.


Have you thought about how you’re planning on using your AMS research grant?

I have. One of the reasons that I got into astronomy in particular is that I used to be really into photography. I’d see those cool pictures that NASA or the Hubble Space Telescope would take of these cool galaxies and nebulae and things like that. So I did some research about how to do shots of the Milky Way

Jacob: “This is an image I took of Jupiter, the largest planet in our Solar System. It was taken by attaching my camera to the back of our 12” telescope, taking 350+ “frames” of the image, and then “stacking” them together to produce a more refined image. It was my first attempt at something like it.”

or shots of the sky with my camera and I found out that I love that and the concept of being able to look at these things. So what I really want to do is some kind of trip to Europe or the West Coast of the United States- someplace cool- and do a bunch of astrophotography and compile it all into a presentation of some kind. It would help my own skills in producing good images, which we do here. But, it would also just be a really cool thing to do and I’d have something to show for it like, “Hey, look at this really cool picture I took.”

I’m also thinking about maybe doing an observatory tour of Europe because there are really cool observatories there. I’d like to go, look at these observatories, and find out what it is that they specifically do, what they research there, and the kind of technology that goes into it, in case I ever want to go into telescope design. So, it’s either astrophotography or an observatory tour.

Are you planning on studying abroad while you’re at Colgate?

I do want to study abroad. I’m actually trying to see if I can do an astronomy/physics and French double major. Next year, I’m trying to plan out going to an approved program in Paris. I’d like to live in Paris and continue my physics work while immersing myself in that culture and language to improve my skills.

What are some of your favorite things about being a student at Colgate?

Speaking for the physics and math departments specifically, we do almost all of our work together. Most of the learning that I did wasn’t in class, but in tutoring sessions with juniors and seniors or just meeting with my friends to go over a problem set. The way in which people work together here is great, and it’s great to be around people who are as driven as you are. Because at the end of the day, we’re all trying to learn this material and become experts in it. So, it’s not hyper-competitive and people will help you.

There have been times when I’ve asked a friend, “Hey, will you sit down with me and go over this problem set?” and then we’ll sit and talk for two hours about some cool problem that we did. I really like how the students here are willing to work together and want each other to succeed.

I also really like how accessible the professors are. That’s something that I can’t stress enough. Every day, I’ll see Professor Crotty doing research on the fourth floor of Ho, and I’ll stop in to say hi or to ask him about a problem, and he’s more than happy to drop everything that he’s doing and talk to me. I literally just did that earlier today. The accessibility of the professors and the eagerness of the students to work together, that’s what I love about studying at Colgate. And also, it’s pretty.

  • Summer astronomy researchers gathered around Foggy Bottom Observatory's 16-inch telescope

Are there any things about Colgate that you think could improve?

I wish we’d change the Core Curriculum around a bit. For example, I’m a STEM major, but I still have to take a Scientific Perspectives class. I think we should reshape our Core Curriculum and have it not be as much of a requirement as encouraged. I think Challenges, Legacies, and Communities and Identities are good to keep, but I’m not sure if STEM students are going to get anything out of a Scientific Perspectives class.

I also think we need to diversify our Core, in the sense that most of the authors that we’re reading are from Europe, they’re white men, things like that. That’s such a limiting scope of perspectives that we’re getting. Of course, that trend is broken in some classes, but for the most part I feel like we’re reading Eurocentric literature. Our claim is that we’re preparing our students for the global world, but how can we do that if we’re only reading from Europe?

I’m also not a fan of the Global Engagements requirement. I think if you study abroad, you should be able to get the Global Engagements requirement, but that’s not always the case. I think if you take a foreign language for an extended period of time, you should be able to get the Global Engagements requirement. I don’t think we have to have this separate class because that means if I take a Core every semester, into my junior year I’ll be taking a Core. My junior year, I want to be focusing on my major, what I’m interested in.

Have you thought about what you’d like to do after Colgate?

I think I like talking to people too much to not teach. I’d like to teach at some level in physics and astronomy. But on the same token, as evidenced by this summer, I also really like researching. So, I think my heart does belong in academia, but I’d like to do it at a small college. I like teaching people, I like being taught, I like the college environment. Everybody is here to learn- I really like that and I’m really inspired by that.

Jacob: “This is an image of the galactic core of the Milky Way, our own galaxy, taken near the Foggy Bottom Observatory. The structure is actually a spiral arm of our own galaxy and the tan region is a combination of dust and a high-density region of stars.”

Denise Larson ’19: “Classroom Observations in Taos, New Mexico”

By Lizzy Moore on September 4, 2017

Posing in front of the Rio Grande Gorge in the middle of a run along the Rift Valley trail

The following post was contributed by Alumni Memorial Scholar Denise Larson ’19, who recently completed an independent research project, using her AMS grant funds, observing classrooms in Taos, New Mexico. 

From August 12th to 22nd 2017, I went to Taos, New Mexico to complete an AMS project entitled, “Classroom Observations in Taos, New Mexico.” As a prospective member of Colgate’s 5-year Master of Arts in Teaching program, I’m required to get 100 observation hours in classrooms spanning the grades that compose the secondary level of education. Further, those hours must comprise a diverse body of students and schools, with traits such as disabilities, poor socioeconomic status, and English Language Learners (ELLs).

Main entrance to Taos Middle School

The latter was proving to be a challenge to observe in upstate New York, so I decided to go to Taos Middle School upon the suggestion of my teammate Hannah Gunther who attended that middle school. The school is 98% Hispanic, 100% free and reduced lunch, and they have a thriving bilingual program. Not only would I be able to satisfy numerous requirements for my observation hours, but I’d do so much more fully than I could have hoped to emulate in upstate New York.

My view in a 6th grade social studies class immediately before the students arrived

I spent 30 hours in the school and observed social studies classes, bilingual language arts classes, and even an advanced mariachi class. A typical day for me looked like getting dropped off amongst the middle schoolers at 7:40 and then proceeding to observe classes until the end of the school day at 2:45. I would sit in the back of the classroom and take notes on a legal pad.

I was particularly paying attention to classroom management strategies, how curriculum was differentiated for students with different learning preferences (particularly ELLs), and also those stand-out moments in classrooms that establish classroom culture. Coming off of a summer that I spent teaching for the first time, I found myself incredibly attune to the nuances of classroom life at Taos Middle School, and loved every minute of my 30 hours there.

By the end of the week, I even found students approaching me for help as I’d managed to establish myself as a credible figure in the classroom. Those brief moments, in tandem with my pages upon pages of notes have given me a wealth of knowledge to draw upon moving forward in my teaching career. I learned that the smallest adjustments make a difference, such as having written directions in addition to oral directions. I learned the importance of validating students’ cultures in the classroom, but also the importance of maintaining control and encouraging students to follow appropriate norms that the school has established. I learned that there are a wide variety of teaching styles and that no style is innately more effective, but that stylistic choice depends on what type of classroom environment a teacher wants to cultivate. Ultimately, I gained a new appreciation for the role of intentionality in the classroom, and the responsibility the teacher has for making the effort to be intentional.

My view of an 8th grade U.S. History class

In addition to the vastly foreign environment I found myself in at Taos Middle School, I also felt transported to another world just being in Taos, New Mexico. As such, my trip to Taos doubled as a cultural experience. I visited Taos Pueblo, and witnessed firsthand the rich Native American culture that flourishes in Taos to this day. This connects to my experience at Taos Middle School because there are some kids at the school who come from the Pueblo, and their culture dictates the way they navigate the school day.

  • Ruins of the original San Geronimo church whose courtyard now functions as a graveyard

My appreciation for the preservation of Native American culture was reaffirmed when I visited Bandalier National Park, which is home to cliff dwellings created and inhabited by Native Americans hundreds of years ago.
The themes of creativity and resourcefulness that I appreciated at Bandalier were re-emphasized at Meow Wolf, which is an interactive installation art exhibit that is a collaboration of over 100 local artists in Santa Fe.

  • View of cliff dwellings and the Frijoles Canyon at Bandalier National Park

Meow Wolf was the only exploration of New Mexico I did (besides in the classroom) that took place indoors, as I was enamored by the desert and mountain vistas. I gazed upon the Rio Grande from the Gorge Bridge, and visited the earth ships that sprouted up nearby. The earth ships are sustainable homes that people have built and live in year round with the aim of preserving the environment as well as living simply, and the location seemed fitting in close proximity to the beautiful Rio Grande.
Another day I hiked down to natural hot springs that reside adjacent to the Rio Grande, and that was the lowest point (literally, not figuratively!) of my time in Taos.
The highest point of my time in Taos came from hiking in the Taos ski valley up to a peak elevation of 11,200 feet. The chance to overlook the tourist-destination Taos ski valley as well as the town of Taos took my breath away (at least what remained after hiking 2000 feet of elevation gain!).
I also got to eat some of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and get in some high altitude running.

  • View of the Taos ski valley from a ridge at 11,200 feet, taken right before a thunderstorm rolled in

I found myself thinking and verbalizing that New Mexico is the coolest place I’ve ever been, and that was a combination of my experience both in Taos Middle School and across the town of Taos and the state of New Mexico. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Colgate’s education department for motivating me to have a rich observation experience, the AMS program for support throughout the grant application process, and the Gunther family for taking me in for my 10 days in Taos as well as being phenomenal tour guides. So a big THANK YOU to everyone who gave me this opportunity and helped me to maximize it!

Revee Needham ’18: WWOOF-ing It in Costa Rica

By Peter Tschirhart on March 5, 2017

Revee Needham learned about organic farming in Costa Rica.

During winter of 2017, Alumni Memorial Scholar Revee Needham ’18 used her grant funds to learn about organic farming in Costa Rica. She writes:

I worked on the farm most mornings, helping to plant, harvest crops, and befriend the baby goat. I learned about the challenges of organic farming in Costa Rica, where pesticide use is higher than the U.S. Overall, the work was a lot more time and labor-intensive than I would’ve thought. Also, I learned about the devastation of November’s hurricane on the farm’s crops.

You can read more about Revee’s experience on Colgate’s Sustainability News blog. And you can learn more about the AMS program by clicking here.

Kelsey Soderberg ’17: “Traversing Japan: Searching for Answers to the Country’s Population Decline”

By Peter Tschirhart on March 3, 2017

Enjoying the perks of being a tourist alongside my research. Too many temples, too little time.

The following post was contributed by Alumni Memorial Scholar Kelsey Soderberg ’17, who recently completed an independent research project, using her AMS grant funds, studying population decline in Japan.

As I made my way through Tokyo’s brightly lit streets in the midst of evening rush hour, I second-guessed my previously held ideals of the country’s population decline. Never had I seen such large crowds of people, flocking together like schools of fish to enter the subway; so where was the evidence for Japan’s rapidly shrinking population?

But just like the danger of listening to a single story there lies the danger of viewing a single place to tell the whole story. While Tokyo’s streets are constantly bustling with young professionals, packs of teenagers, businessmen and foreign tourists, many areas throughout Japan are facing severe population decline as the majority of young people leave for the capital in search of a better financial and social life. This migration is accompanied by Japan’s incredibly long life expectancy (>83 years old) and shrinking birth rate (~1.4 births per woman), all contributing to a severe population decline that threatens to ravage the country’s economy and way of life if left unchecked.

With unanswered questions about Japan’s demographic challenges, a curiosity for the unknown, and a nearly overwhelming desire to see the world, I packed up my suitcase over January break and headed to the world’s largest city in the hopes of using my AMS funding to place my knowledge into real world context.

Soon enough, I had exited the plane with no knowledge of the language, simply traveling around Tokyo with a notebook and a backpack on my shoulders. While I was primarily conducting research by fire and observing the cultural and social tendencies of everyday Japanese life, I also met with geography and sociology professors at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University to discuss the impact of Japan’s shrinking population on its economic, political and cultural realms. For me, this project was the culmination of my Colgate liberal arts education: an internationally focused research project primarily fueled by a (relatively random) interest in Japanese sociological problems stemming from Professor Yamamoto’s Core Japan class during my sophomore fall. In the end, my project utilized every skill I’ve learned throughout my four years at Colgate: listening to others to find meaning, asking questions without a clear answer, opening oneself to the unknown, and finding similarities among differences. It also highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of my geography major as I searched for answers to a national problem within each realm of society.

While the rest of the country struggles with a declining population, Tokyo’s skyline goes as far as the eye can see– evidence of the vastness associated with the world’s largest city.

In academic terms, the discourse I held with the professors I met proved my previously held notions of the immediate and long-term effects of such rapid depopulation and furthered my understanding of the issue on a macroscale. But it was the more casual back and forth with each professor accompanied by my quick conversations with Japanese strangers in broken English that proved to be the most valuable parts of my research. While recent statistics clearly demonstrate the dastardly consequences that population decline will have on Japanese economic and cultural life, it was not until I spoke with Japanese people about the concerns they have about their personal finances, their children’s future, and the government’s response that I seemed to gain a more three-dimensional grasp on the interconnectedness of the issues at hand. The economic downturn has sparked a lack of confidence in the future of Japanese jobs, ultimately leading to an uncertainty in the personal decision to have children. The incredibly large number of elderly people has created a population bubble on the brink of bursting, causing many people to question the reality of obtaining their pension after a lifetime of work. Women are working more than in the past, partially out of opportunity and partially out of necessity, and childcare is almost impossible to obtain in Japan’s largest cities, leading to higher median ages of marriage and fewer children. Throughout my trip, the majority of people I spoke with worried about these problems specifically, often blaming the population decline on them and vice versa.

In reality, though, most city folk don’t talk about the country’s demographic issues, as the sheer size of Tokyo and its suburbs makes it easy to forget about them.

It was not until I traveled to the rural, isolated town of Matsukawa in Nagano Prefecture that I realized the tangible effects of the problem lie outside of the capital. Within the Japanese Alps and other more rural areas, life is much slower and the lights less bright. After staying with a wonderful host family and exploring the mountainous region for several days, it was clear that Japan’s famously aging population and low birth rate were much more noticeable in the rural areas than in urban. Small towns like Matsukawa lack young people as many flee to Tokyo or Kyoto for college or to start their professional careers. But for most town residents, depopulation is not thought about—a common theme I found throughout my time there. I was initially struck by this lack of concern about such a pressing issue but soon realized that the Japanese, like any other culture, get caught up in the day to day struggles of life. National issues are often an afterthought, as children, jobs and happiness rank higher on the rung of importance than relatively slow-moving demographic change.

Although my academic standpoint on the critical nature of the issue had initially caused me to look at this type of large-scale apathy with contempt, traveling throughout Japan allowed me to see the humanity in a largely statistical study. Just a five-minute conversation with a Japanese stranger gave me a better grasp on the effects of this population change than many of the books I had belabored over, once again proving the indisputable benefits of the AMS program.

Villages are meticulously placed between farmland and mountains, as the Japanese use every last bit of available land to their advantage. Compared to the ultra-modern lifestyle found in Japan’s cities, rural towns like this are much different.

And in another sense, all hope is not lost. After staying in Kyoto for several days, I drove up to the small city of Ayabe in northern Kyoto Prefecture with a geography professor from Doshisha University in order to see first-hand the effects of depopulation. From the looks of the town’s main street, it was clear that young people had fled for the opportunity-filled cities, leaving behind an agriculturally dominated area struggling to get by in the 21st century. However, the area was also filled with older retirees and young couples with children who had left Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka to live life at a slower pace. This type of emigration is common in Japan’s more rural areas, as many refuse to adopt the hyper-modern, Westernized world often found in the urban core. While in Ayabe, I visited the local government offices where I learned about yearly welcoming parties held in an attempt to bring city-goers to the area. It was clear that local activism was more robust than many of the attempts to change policy at the federal level– a reflection of the imbalanced narrative and consequences of the demographic change. This will not entirely solve the problem, but it does provide hope in a relatively hopeless situation.

While my on-the-ground research reinforced many of the theories I had previously learned, much of my experience in Japan was welcomingly unexpected and had little to do with my actual research. Here are some of the moments I’ll never forget:

  • The way strangers respected each other and welcomed me. After walking into a café in a one-street town, I was given a homemade gift by the owner even though we couldn’t communicate in the same language.
  • Making my own traditional Japanese style bed each night on tatami mats.
  • Eating dried, roasted, baked, and broiled fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner- and liking them all.
  • Waking up to an earthquake in my Tokyo hotel room.
  • Experiencing Tokyo rush hour. Though I’ve worked two summers in New York, this was an indescribable experience.
  • Feeling completely “at home” with my host family in Matsukawa while playing in the snow with their two young girls and eating homemade udon noodles cross-legged on the floor.
  • Skiing the Japanese Alps at Happo-One, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
  • Learning about the intricacies of Zen Buddhism, a much needed lesson to prepare for the anxieties that come with senior spring.
  • Hand carving a wasabi plant onto my vanilla ice cream. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.
  • Thanking the geography major in me after conquering each city’s public transportation system by myself.
  • Walking through Fushimi-Inari, the land of a Thousand Gates in Kyoto, and feeling completely in awe of human capability.
  • Feeding peanuts to dozens of macaque monkeys on a mountain overlooking Kyoto. It sounds as weird and cool as it was.
  • Allowing myself to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in a culture completely different from my own; allowing myself to feel welcomed and comforted by the kindness of strangers and a culture completely different from my own.

Appreciating the freedom to do and see whatever I wanted in a foreign land for two weeks.

Overlooking Kyoto with a friendly visitor.

The dichotomy of modern Japan lies in the balance between old and new, urban and rural, Japanese and Western. Grappling with these differences were at the heart of most of my cultural observations.

Each place I visited, from Tokyo’s glowing streets to Matsukawa’s mountainous backdrop, provided me with a completely different perspective on Japan from the last. My own identity changed minute to minute as well, giving me distinct vantage points from which to learn and absorb information. One moment I was a well-versed student discussing the implications of a declining population on the macroeconomics of a first-world nation with renowned scholars, and the next moment I was an unaccompanied tourist making my way through foreign alleyways and unknown train stations. These solo moments as a traveler made up the majority of my trip and allowed me the freedom and independence to move from one interest of mine to the next. With few specifics on my itinerary and an impartial unfamiliarity about the realities of Japanese life, I was able to view the culture from an outsider’s perspective with few biased presumptions. Very few times in my life have I felt such autonomy to create an entirely original story while making each and every decision by and for myself. Though I still cannot claim to know what Japan will face in the coming years, the opportunity to learn more was one of the best of my life.