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Reiji Hirayama

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Volunteer Activities and Education

Reiji Hirayama
Professor of German Language and Literature, Faculty of Law, Chuo University

Opening of Volunteer Station

Although two years have passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake, the future is still uncertain regarding reconstruction in disaster areas. Together with people living in the disaster areas, we at Chuo University experienced the severe tremors which shook the earth two years ago on March 11th. We cannot forget the plight of disaster areas. Chuo University students, graduate students, faculty and staff have participated in a variety of volunteer activities at disaster areas.

Drawing upon this experience, the Chuo University Student Affairs Office opened a Volunteer Station in April of this year and has started activities. Dr. Mariko Matsumoto was appointed as Volunteer Coordinator. Dr. Matsumoto spent 18 months working to support the education of children in Miyagi Prefecture’s Onagawa Town, where the downtown area was completely devastated by the tsunami. The Volunteer Station is already taking energetic action such as offering consultation to prospective student volunteers and organizing study tours in disaster areas.

Student volunteer activities in Kesennuma

Personally, since being appointed as Director of the Student Affairs Office in April, I have become involved in support for volunteer activities. In this article, I would like to discuss the issue of student volunteer activities and learning. Last March, I participated as a faculty leader in student volunteer activities held by the Student Affairs Office. It was an opportunity for me to get a first-hand look at the efforts of students on Oshima Island, part of Kesennuma City. In the wintry cold of Oshima Island, students worked hard to clear away rubble and process marine products. I was touched by this fresh image of students who were so different than they appeared in the classroom. At the evening meeting students frankly discussed what they had learned through volunteer activities. Through interaction with various people of different ages in the disaster area, students learned the importance of communication. They realized the need to understanding the true hopes and needs of people in the disaster area. Furthermore, they learned the meaning of group activity. More than anything else, the students’ hearts were deeply etched with the following message from the people in the disaster area: “Please don’t forget about us.” In the short period of volunteer activities, students learned many important things which cannot be studied in a classroom.

Symposium: 2 Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake

On June 9th, a symposium was held by the Kanto Council of the Nationwide Private University Professors’ Association on Government Subsidies at Meiji University’s Liberty Tower. The theme of the symposium was “2 Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake—What Action is Required Now?” Currently, Chuo University represents the Kanto region and Volunteer Coordinator Dr. Mariko Matsumoto was asked to give a keynote report. Furthermore, 3rd-year student Shiori Miyazaki (Faculty of Letters) gave a report on student volunteer activities. Dr. Matsumoto’s keynote report discussed support for the education of children in Onagawa Town. The town has few flat tracts of land and was completely destroyed by the tsunami, so residents now live in temporary housing erected on higher ground.

The NPO headed by Dr. Matsumoto provides guidance for the afterschool studies of children. Volunteer university students help the children with their studies. Dr. Matsumoto describes the relationship between children and students as a diagonal relationship. For children, parents and teachers are in a vertical relationship, while classmates form a horizontal relationship. In contracts, university students are part of a diagonal relationship and are a different presence than parents, teachers and classmates. There is unique and important meaning in this relationship. For children, students are teachers when studying together and friends when discussing personal matters. This creates an ever-changing and free relationship. Accordingly, children are able to talk with university students about emotional problems which they can’t discuss with their parents or friends.

Treasure obtained from volunteer activities

Miyazaki’s report discussed activities in the Omose district of Kesennuma. Miyazaki participated in NPO activities in temporary housing and supported children’s studies. In my opinion, an important point of her report was the connection between volunteer activities and learning; specifically, the point of how volunteer activities are directly connected to individual learning at university.

In the Omose district, Miyazaki learned the importance of communication by interacting with people of many different ages and lifestyle backgrounds. She recognized the importance of listening with humility to the voices of people in the disaster area and understanding their emotions. In order to encourage someone to discuss their innermost thoughts, it is necessary to make statement and listen in ways which match the situation. Furthermore, since activities are conducted by teams, communication within the team is also important. Activities come to a standstill if there is not smooth communication within the team.

Miyazaki also learned the methodology of keeping a detailed record of her own activities and taking action while verifying what she has done. Miyazaki carried a small notebook with her and wrote down even the smallest details. She paid attention to how people in the disaster area responded to her statements and kept records of their facial expressions and statements. As a result, Miyazaki could clearly identify good points of her behavior and areas which needed to be fixed. This helped her act more appropriately during the next phase of her activities.

Miyazaki concludes that she was changed by what she learned in the disaster area. She witnessed how people who experienced unimaginable disaster now live through compassion towards each other. She saw how children who experienced so much sorrow now live resolutely each day. Miyazaki feels that what she saw will be a treasure for her as she lives her life. Also, her volunteer experiences make her question what action is required in the world today and have added meaning to her studies at university.

Miyazaki feels that her experiences will also be useful in learning. The ability to communicate with various people, the ability to work within a team, the ability to take action while organizing and reflecting on past activities—all of these traits are essential for learning at university. Indeed, these traits are also required when performing in society. Miyazaki was able to acquire such valuable abilities through volunteer activities.

Moreover, the way in which Miyazaki interacts with society has changed. Previously, she felt that law and politics were of little relation to her daily life. However, the reality of disaster areas made her recognize that such important fields are directly related to daily life. Miyazaki ended her report by stating that students fulfill an important role in society. She encouraged other students to make their voices heard and to give back to society.

The meaning of service-learning

When considering Miyazaki’s experience in the disaster area, it is clear that volunteer activities fulfill an important role in learning at universities. On May 24th, I had the opportunity to listen to a lecture given by Dr. Christine Cress (Portland State University, U.S.) at Meiji Gakuin University. The lecture was entitled Learning through Serving. Dr. Cress specializes in service-learning, an unfamiliar term for most people. Personally, Dr. Cress’s lecture was the first time that I had heard the term. Although the contents of service-learning overlap with concepts such as volunteer activities and internships, service-learning focuses on the process of how social contribution learning is connected to education in the regular curriculum. The motivation for volunteer activities comes from the benevolent spirit of wanting to help people, while the motivation for internships comes from the desire to acquire career experience. In contrast, service-learning is an activity which contributes to regional society through connection with university learning. An example would be science students conducting a water quality survey for a town’s river and cooperating in purification activities.

Through service-learning, students realize how the academic discipline which they are studying contributes to society. They recognize the importance of learning. In turn, this increases the students’ desire to learn.

Towards further activity

Opening of the Volunteer Station is a big step forward. However, compared to other universities, it is still a small-scale action. In the future, through further development of organizational systems and activities, I hope to instill our university with a volunteer culture and the concept of service-learning. Universities have the mission of gathering the wisdom generated by mankind and responding to modern needs. Human trust is an essential aspect in the foundation of such activities. In that respect, it is obvious that volunteer activities are directly linked to university learning.

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Reiji Hirayama
Professor of German Language and Literature, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Professor Hirayama was born in 1951 in Niigata City. He left without completing the Doctoral program at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Humanities and Psychology (majoring in German Literature). After serving as a lecturer at Yamagata University and others, he has served on the Faculty of Law at Chuo University (in charge of German language studies) since 1984. His areas of specialization are German language and German culture. He is currently conducting research into 18th-Century German literature and thought, such as Lessing and Goethe. Professor Hirayama is also researching the culture of the German Jews and the people who helped to save Jews from the holocaust. In terms of his hobbies, when he was an elementary school student Professor Hirayama admired famous Rakugo performer Sanyutei Ensho, and he aimed to become a Rakugo performer himself. When he was a junior high and high school student, he admired graphic novels and aimed to become a manga artist (he applied for the Newcomer Prize at the "Shonen Magazine" twice but his work was not selected). When he was a university student, he wrote novels for Doujinshi (common interest magazines with a small readership). None of these efforts were successful.