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The financial realities of growing up in a large family in Japan left Kyoko Onna unable to pursue her dream of studying at a U.S. university. But that changed after she tapped a University of Maryland University College (UMUC) language program in an unlikely venue: the U.S. military base in Okinawa.

Onna took advantage of the Bridge Program, a rigorous English-language immersion initiative taught on U.S. military bases in Japan. Armed with her new language proficiency, she enrolled in a UMUC degree program. She completed all her requirements and received her degree at the Okinawa commencement on April 15.

“I had wanted to brush up on my English skills and work in an environment where I can use them … Just speaking English isn’t enough to be competitive in the job market,” said Onna, who now works on base for the U.S. Navy. “I was [also] planning to pursue a degree program at UMUC from the beginning.”

The completion of U.S. degree programs is just one of the benefits envisioned in 1987 when the governor of Okinawa and the U.S. military partnered to launch a two-year pilot program offering English classes to 35 Japanese nationals at the Kadena Air Base in the Okinawa Prefecture. The goal was to develop Okinawa’s human resources, deepen cross-cultural understanding and foster friendly relations between Japan and the United States.

Since then, Bridge Program classes have been added across Japan at Misawa Air Base, Yokota Air Base, and bases in Yokosuka, Zama, Iwakuni and Sasebo. In addition to Japanese citizens, servicemembers’ spouses who are not native English speakers are also eligible for the program, which is offered annually and typically takes a year to complete.

“The Bridge Program allows UMUC to support the military and aid in its success, by supporting our host nation in Japan in [multiple] ways,” said Timothy Quezada, UMUC director of graduate and special programs in Asia. He added that the program also puts a “human face” on the U.S. presence in Japan by allowing person-to-person interactions between Japanese citizens and American servicemembers and UMUC faculty and staff.

UMUC already is active in providing educational opportunities—including degree programs—to military personnel around the world. But the decision to open bases to study programs for foreign nationals was unprecedented.

“It is a great opportunity to receive an academic English education, especially for our area, which has few universities,” said a spokesperson for the city hall in Iwakuni, which hosts a Marine Corps Air Station where the Bridge Program is offered. “Also, it helps people to improve not only language skills but to develop [other] skills that allow them to work internationally.

“People in and near our city [and] also from other prefectures join this program,” the spokesperson said. “It helps those people get jobs on the base and at other companies.”

Japanese participants are selected for the Bridge Program by the prefectures where the military bases are located. Students have a wide range of backgrounds—from stay-at-home mothers to tour guides to those with a Ph.D. A few already work on the U.S. bases as civilian employees; English proficiency makes them eligible for more challenging jobs.

Tomoko Taylor was working at a cell phone store when she entered the Bridge Program. Today she is employed at one of the military bases in Okinawa. “All my supervisors are American, and all communications—in writing and speaking—require English,” she said.

Students point to rigorous coursework, including an emphasis on listening, writing and U.S.-style oral presentations, as a feature that distinguishes the Bridge Program from other English language classes. The support offered by faculty is also praised.

“I didn’t know the classes could be so much fun,” Taylor said. “We had an awesome instructor.”

Recent students include a Ph.D. candidate who is required to read research papers written in English to obtain his neurobiology degree at a local university, a woman with English-speaking in-laws and a woman who lived in the United States when young and plans to return there for college.

 The program benefits local communities because job opportunities are expanded when workers are multilingual. Students point to friendships that are formed.

“The opportunity to learn at an on-base university is such an attractive environment for people who are interested in studying abroad but cannot afford to,” said an official at the International Exchange Division of the Aomori Foundation, an agency of the Misawa Prefecture that collaborates with UMUC.

Bridging academics and culture

Bridge Program faculty look for innovative ways to advance their students’ language skills, from debate to social gatherings with Americans. Vista-based faculty member Robert Walsh paired Bridge students and military servicemembers in conversation groups one day. On another occasion, he took two students to an academic conference in Sapporo where they helped him with an English-language presentation on the Bridge Program.

“UMUC is providing an opportunity for Japanese students to use their academic English skills in a meaningful way, not just in the classroom, but in interaction with our staff and faculty and others on base. This provides an authentic context for them to practice their English skills,” Quezada said. “Some other institutions have students go to school and talk with other English-language learners … but UMUC provides a context that enriches that language experience.”

The five-course English sequence, with an optional sixth course, also gives students a taste of western-style university programming. It is designed for students who have already studied English but do not have the proficiency required by U.S. universities.

“What I’ve been surprised by is the diversity of the students we’ve had,” Quezada said. “I thought we’d be enrolling a lot of young Japanese students and young professionals, but there’s a huge range of ages.”

Bridge Program Coordinator Jackie Cillizza said participants have ranged in age from 18 to 82 years. She said applicants may already have degrees from universities in Japan or elsewhere, or they may be high school graduates. Adding to the diversity are spouses of servicemembers. They have included individuals from Brazil, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Korea, Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine.

Hinako Takahashi-Breines has taught in the Bridge Program for two years. She called her students the “best part of my job.”

“I have to remind myself of how much effort these students are putting out to be in the program,” she said. “It is also gratifying when I learn that the Bridge Program helped students to open new doors in their lives.”

Takahashi-Breines has seen some of her Bridge graduates take additional UMUC courses at the bases—in art, biology, history, math, psychology and other disciplines. They study in classrooms with servicemembers and their families, other Bridge graduates and anyone else in the community eligible to enroll in university coursework. Takahashi-Breines added that a few of her students have moved to the United States and Australia to pursue degrees.

Cillizza said students emerge with greater self-confidence and improved interpersonal skills. The initiative also advances the idea of lifelong learning, a concept not intrinsic to Japan.

“The idea of taking classes at any other point in your life is relatively new,” Cillizza explained. “By the end of the program, though, a lot of minds are changed and quite a few will take a class or two even if they are not planning on completing a degree.”

Naomi Tominaga, for example, continued after the Bridge Program to get an associate’s degree and, on April 15, 2017, received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from UMUC. She now has enrolled at a Japanese university, hoping to become a teacher.

“I am grateful to the program for the opportunity to reach far and above my goals of solely improving my language skills,” she said. “I’ve gained so much more.”

A college degree was not part of Satoko Tamaki’s plan, either, when she joined the Bridge Program. But after she completed the English coursework in 2010, she went on to get an associate’s degree from UMUC and is on track to graduate later this year with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Once out of the program, some Bridge students polish—or even share—their English skills through community organizations, including “friendship clubs” that promote interaction between U.S. servicemembers and local residents. Fussa, which hosts the Yokota Air Base, is one of seven cities near the base with friendship clubs.

The Bridge Program fosters “an attachment between Fussa city and the Yokota base,” said Hitoshi Shibasaki of the Fussa-Yokota Friendship and Exchange Club. “It creates opportunities for students to share the culture and history of the area.

“One of the former Bridge students became the president of the Mizuho Hokota communication club and another opened an English conversation class for local children,” Shibasaki added.

In addition to offering Japanese students a chance to study English and boost their job skills, the program takes serious its goal to serve as a “bridge” to cross-cultural experiences and friendship.

“Our students see Americans on television and get a superficial view. They are not concerned only about learning the English language, they want to learn about Americans,” Quezada explained. For that reason, Bridge Program students take part in mixers, concerts, parties and an annual welcome beach barbecue with hot dogs and hamburgers.

But for Quezada, no event is a better “bridge” than the Thanksgiving get-together.

“The Americans bring cranberries and mashed potatoes and buns and turkey and ham,” Quezada said of the off-base celebration that offers a peek at an American tradition. “The students bring the sides: rice and gyoza and soba.

“Whenever I see all those foods together, I feel like they embody the unique experience of the Bridge Program.”