By Kris Dreessen

Nami Nishimura ’21 worked in a Toyota factory for more than a year in Aichi, Japan, to earn money to study at Geneseo. She wanted to learn about and be a part of American culture, and she appreciated the style of U.S. higher education.

“In Japan, education is a lot more passive,” says Nishimura. “Here, students are so engaged, asking questions, and professors and students are used to having discussions.”

Nishimura was shy in the traditional Japanese academic setting of her hometown of Nara and looked forward to more active learning. She signed up for an astronomy course with Professor of Physics Aaron Steinhauer her first semester at Geneseo and has seen stars through her eyes ever since.

“In every lecture, he seemed to genuinely enjoy what he was teaching. That inspired me and got me interested in the lecture itself,” says Nishimura. “The more I studied astronomy, the more fascinating it was. Space is so massive, and we are part of a vast system that we don’t know much about.”

At first, Nishimura was hesitant to participate in class because she may make mistakes with her English. Over time, she says, she grew comfortable in class and lab and began making friends on campus. Overcoming her initial caution helped to both advance her astronomy studies and enhance her campus involvement.

Nishimura, a physics major, works in the International Student Office and writes a blog about her experiences as a student. She also co-developed the Peer Mentor Program in collaboration with International Students and Services to help students like herself acclimate and excel at Geneseo. As a former resident assistant for International Student Engagement, she helped enrich the experience of such students on campus.

Now in her second year as a research assistant with Assistant Professor of Physics Thomas Osburn, Nishimura develops theoretical models to predict what happens during violent encounters between compact astronomical objects, such as black holes. Contributing to our understanding of the universe is a dream come true for Nishimura. 

Q: What profession do you hope to pursue in astronomy?
A: “Ideally, I’d like to be a researcher or a professor. I want to keep my options open. That is exciting. Even three years ago, I had no idea I would be a physics  major. It’s not exaggerating to say that every day looks bright to me because there is always something new to learn!

Q: What have you learned about American culture at college that has changed you?
A: “I have learned the importance of taking initiative and speaking up. In Japan, I was very silent and shy. I would not speak up for what I think and what I believe. Here, you need to speak up so others can understand you. It took me time and courage to speak for myself -— including raising my hand. People take time to understand what I say, even if my English isn’t perfect. Because of this, I started expressing my opinions and asking questions in lectures. It’s a huge point for me.”

Q: How did speaking up benefit you?
A: “Asking questions and expressing my opinions helped me to understand the course material. Now I go to all the office hours and am engaged in class. After lectures, I approach professors and initiate conversations. I told Professor Osburn that I was interested in his research, and that led to him asking me to be a research assistant.”

Q: What have you learned about making connections, even if English is not your primary language?
A: “At first, I was intimidated to start conversations because I had no confidence in my English, and I was afraid of making stupid mistakes. I changed my mind. I’ve learned that English is not the biggest issue. Finding something in common and being open-minded — and finding others who are open-minded — is more important.”

Q: Why did you start the Peer Mentor Program for international students?
A:When I came here, It was my first time being in a foreign country and I was so nervous. I was at a loss not knowing how to make friends, how to take classes in English and I felt lonely. I thought it would be helpful if we can connect incoming students with current International students before the semester so that they can ask their mentors questions prior to arrival. It is always reassuring to have someone you can turn to, especially in a new environment. Mentors are selected based on their inclusivity, friendliness and open-mindedness. They are great resources and good friends. They understand how challenging it could be for international students to succeed because they’ve gone through the same struggles.”  

Q: Why are intercultural experiences important?
A: “Staying in the same place or culture limits your own opportunities and future. Though getting out of your comfortable place can be scary and challenging, there are definitely things you can never experience otherwise, both good and bad things. Learning about other cultures always brings you new perspectives and enriches your life.”

Q: Geneseo believes in the importance of international experiences for all students. As an international student, what do you bring to the campus?
A: “One of the biggest things is to let Geneseo students know that studying abroad is a good experience. It may be scary to think about going to a new place with another language. If other students see an international student like me, enjoying their college experience in the United States and succeeding and building a life, it proves it doesn’t matter where you are from or what language you speak. I hope it will inspire them to go and explore other places in the world.”

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