Japan disaster disrupts academic plans

After a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit Japan, people took refuge in evacuation centers like the one above; many, including Yale faculty and students, left the country.
After a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit Japan, people took refuge in evacuation centers like the one above; many, including Yale faculty and students, left the country. Photo by Annika Lee.

All but eight of the roughly 60 Yale students and faculty who were in Japan at the time of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami have safely left the country, Associate Secretary and Director of International Affairs Don Filer said, but many are now scrambling to revise their plans for research and language immersion.

The earthquake and tsunami ravaged the country’s northeastern coast and caused explosions in three nuclear reactors. Though the majority of Yale affiliates — a group of 29 from the School of Management and seven other students and faculty interviewed — were all based in and around Tokyo, about 200 miles from the heaviest damage, administrators were quick to seek out everyone traveling in the country and urge them to return to the U.S. if possible.

In an email to Yale students and faculty in Japan last Wednesday afternoon, Filer said MEDEX, Yale’s travel insurance provider, had recommended that foreigners leave the country, though MEDEX did not issue a formal evacuation notice.

“For those of you in Japan on a brief trip, it may make sense to return to the United States, since power outages and transportation problems may make it difficult to conduct planned research or study,” Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer wrote in a March 14 email. “Those of you with plans for lengthy stays should carefully assess your individual situations to determine how conditions will affect your ability to carry out your work.”

While no one affiliated with Yale was in Sendai, the region most severely affected by the disaster, at least 12 students may have to make significant changes to their studies. Two of three graduate students conducting research for their dissertations left Japan and are trying to determine whether they can complete their projects elsewhere if nuclear radiation prevents them from returning, and other students must adapt to their language programs ending early.

Annika Lee ’10, who is improving her language skills at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama in the hopes of securing a job with a Japanese firm, said she may lose a job offer now that Japanese industry is in disarray.

“It looks like I’m back to job-hunting now,” she said, adding that her language program has been suspended.

DECISION TO LEAVE JAPAN

Students and professors interviewed said when the earthquake hit, they knew they had to leave.

Twenty-seven students from the School of Management, led by professor of operations research Arthur Swersey, were visiting a Nissan Motors plant outside Tokyo when the earthquake struck, Swersey said. As part of the SOM curriculum, first-year students go abroad during spring break to visit foreign businesses.

“You can hear the shaking; it kind of sounds like the lights and the ceiling tiles are bouncing back and forth,” Andrew Goff SOM ’12 said, describing his experience in a second-floor conference room at Nissan. “We went under the tables just in case anything from the ceilings were to fall down.”

The group then evacuated the building and boarded a bus back to their hotel in Tokyo. What should have been a 90-minute trip took close to seven hours, as traffic clogged the roads both into and out of the Japanese capital, said Mark Butterworth SOM ’11, a teaching assistant on the trip.

Upon arriving in Tokyo, they found their hotel lobby filled with people temporarily stranded in the city, as train service had shut down, though the atmosphere remained calm, Goff and Butterworth said. Throughout Friday night, aftershocks of the quake caused their hotel building to sway, in what Swersey called an “unnerving” experience since they were all above the 25th floor.

In consultation with Sherilyn Scully, dean of students at the School of Management, the group decided to cut its trip short, Swersey and Scully said, citing uncertainty surrounding the nuclear power plant explosions and concerns that flights out of the country might become hard to secure. The group moved south from Tokyo on Sunday and flew back to the U.S. after a stopover in Korea.

Some students and faculty in the area experienced the earthquake in unique circumstances.

Lee said she was donating blood when the earthquake struck.

“They had to wait for the shaking to stop before they could take the needle out,” she said.

PLANS DISRUPTED

Out of the country and out of harm’s way, students are faced with the challenge of adapting their studies to the situation.

Assistant Dean of the Graduate School Robert Harper-Mangels said none of the dissertations of graduate students in Japan would be severely impacted by a decision to leave the country.

Ellen Tilton-Cantrell GRD ’12, who was conducting research on four Japanese authors for her dissertation, said she had already finished learning about two of them. She said that if she is unable to return to Japan in the near future, she may have to shift her dissertation’s focus from the authors she has not researched to others she would be able to study while in the U.S. or elsewhere, adding that she had contemplated making this change even before the earthquake.

Recent events will not disrupt the research of Kyohei Yamada GRD ’12, who has merely moved to a different part of Japan, but they have taken a mental toll.

“On the mental side, it was shocking, and that affects my ability to focus on what I should be doing,” he said.

Students in language courses are experiencing greater impediments to their studies in Japan, since at least two programs are shutting down.

Lee said her program, which was run by Stanford, was suspended once the U.S. Department of State changed its policy regarding travel to Japan and began recommending that students leave the country after the earthquake. She said administrators of the program are considering ways to continue the program, such as relocating it to Stanford or going online. Lee said she will return to the U.S. in early April.

While Lee’s courses are funded by Yale’s Parker-Huang Fellowship, they are also available to Yale students through the Light Fellowship for Asian language study. Kelly McLaughlin, director of the Light Fellowship, said another program approved by the fellowship, the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies, will also close, adding that two Yale students were studying there this semester.

The Light Fellowship also offers summer funding, but McLaughlin said he does not yet know whether the disrupted programs will reopen for the summer session.

Administrators of both programs did not respond to requests for comment.

UNCERTAIN FUNDING

Some students studying in Japan under a fellowship are being forced to consider how leaving the country could affect their funding.

McLaughlin said the seven Light Fellows in Japan this semester will not have to return any funds “out of their own pockets” to the fellowship if they choose to leave the country or if their programs end early, though they may have to return unused funds.

He said that students who choose to leave Japan, whether because their programs were canceled or because they felt unsafe in the country, will still be titled Light Fellows.

“We did not want to make students think they would have to stay in the country to fulfill some kind of award requirement,” McLaughlin said.

Other Yale fellowships such as the Parker-Huang Fellowship will likely deal with the situation in the same way, he said, but fellowships not administered by the University may be less flexible.

Ryan Cook GRD ’12, who is conducting dissertation research on a Japan Foundation Fellowship, said that under normal circumstances he would have to remain in Japan to receive funding. Cook said Saturday night that the foundation had not yet announced any changes to its policy following the earthquake and tsunami.

Harper-Mangels said his office is handling concerns about fellowship funding on a case-by-case basis. He added that most graduate students who lose external funding can still use their University Dissertation Fellowship, which provides all graduate students with one year of funding, to finish their projects. While students must usually apply for this fellowship the semester before using it, his office has decided to allow students conducting research in Japan to begin using it whenever necessary, he said.

“None of the students should have to balance safety against funding,” Harper-Mangels said. “But ultimately, [with external fellowships], it’s the agency’s policy and they can do whatever they want with their money.”

The University created a section of its relief website last Monday to allow people to donate to relief efforts in Japan, Maria Bouffard, director of emergency management, said.

In addition, the Institute for Sacred Music’s March 26 concert, featuring the Bach Collegium Japan, will now have a fundraising component, Bouffard said. All proceeds from ticket sales and donations made at the concert will go to the Red Cross-Japan Earthquake, Melissa Maier, manager of publications and external relations at the institute, said. She added that laptops will also be set up during intermission to allow people to donate online.

Tickets are $8 for students and $15 for faculty and the general public.

Comments

  • jkkuwahara

    Who were the eight brave ones who stayed? *They* seem to be most serious about their studies. As a future employer, *they* would be the ones I would hire. There is no real reason to leave, unless they were located in the areas of damage. Sounds like some people just got frightened by the delayed trains. That’s not nearly as scary as the muggings, hit-and-runs, and murders in New Haven. Too bad Yale had to cave in to the ultra-conservative posture of MEDEX. So now the insurance company makes educational decisions for Yale and its students?