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‘It’s maddening’: A French student’s desperation to study in Japan

updates on Japan
"My love for Japan started in a rather standard way. I discovered the country as a kid through animation films and mangas. From there, I researched the culture, cuisine, way of thinking, and so on and I loved what I discovered," Alia Gallet-Pandelle says. Source: Philip Fong/AFP

Stranded students are dying to know about the updates on Japan. Will they be able to resume on-campus lessons soon? Will they have to quarantine? Will they get to have the full study abroad experience? When will this all happen?

Updates on Japan, however, do not answer these questions well enough for French student, Alia Gallet-Pandelle, who’s currently doing her double degree master’s at INSA Lyon University and Tohoku University.

“I was supposed to fly to Japan in October last year,” she says. “Due to the pandemic, Tohoku University asked me to postpone my programme to start in April this year and I naively accepted thinking things would return to normal by then.”

Things didn’t and haven’t. We caught up with her to learn why she’s frustrated about the updates on Japan and how they have affected her:

Where does your interest in your course come from? Walk us through it.

I chose INSA Lyon University, a high-quality engineering institution in France because I could study sciences without giving up languages. This uni has many partnerships with various institutions across the world and is also very international. 

After two years of preparatory class, I decided to specialise in Materials Science and Engineering. Here, I get to learn about the various types of materials with applications in every field possible. 

The focus is set on understanding how the microstructure shapes the macroscopic properties. A wide range of techniques to characterise materials are also extensively studied. 

I’ve also felt a lot of concern about climate change issues and it became self-evident and necessary for my future work as an engineer to be centred around these. I needed to do my part to help lower society’s impact on the environment. 

As a future material engineer, I would like to design environmentally friendly materials which use renewable resources and can be recycled or biodegraded. 

What made you want to study this in Japan? 

My love for Japan started in a rather standard way. I discovered the country as a kid through animation films and mangas. From there, I researched the culture, cuisine, way of thinking, and so on and I loved what I discovered. 

I chose my uni in France partly because of the many exchange programmes it offers and one that interested me, in particular, was in Japan. When I first began uni, I had to choose languages and, of course, I picked up Japanese. 

Studying in Japan was (and still is) my dream. I studied hard and applied for the double master’s degree programme at Tohoku University which is four years in France and one semester of Japanese language classes with two years of master’s studies in Japan. 

What’s it been like for you to study remotely?

I was supposed to fly to Japan in October last year. Due to the pandemic, Tohoku University asked me to postpone my programme to start in April this year and I naively accepted thinking things would return to normal by then.

Between October and April, I went back to my home uni as a normal fifth-year student. With the lockdowns in France, most of the classes were online anyways. Because I’m not a MEXT student, a DJ, or an athlete, I wasn’t able to travel to Japan in the spring. 

I followed the Japanese classes online in the Japan timezone which was about 15 hours a week and a lot of personal work in between. Since the start of the fall semester in October, I’m a first-year master’s student at Tohoku University. 

Now, I’m doing scientific classes online and have to use my home uni to gain access to a lab. However, I’ve not been able to start my experiments for my master’s thesis so far which worries me. 

With no updates on Japan and resuming your studies there, what are the hardest challenges you face?

During the language classes of the spring semester, studying at impossible times wasn’t the worst bit for me. While it was challenging (and I don’t wish for anyone to go through it), my teachers were kind and classes were very interactive. 

I’m surprised how humans can adapt to all sorts of situations. For me, the hardest part is the lack of social interaction, not getting to know your classmates or your teachers, not meeting people in real life and being stuck at home. 

Even though we managed a weekly online meeting, not many students participated. Another challenging thing is living in constant doubt and uncertainty — not knowing where you will be and what you will do. 

I’ve not been able to plan much because I still have hope that something positive might happen with the updates on Japan. The lack of timeline and criteria about the border news is maddening. 

There has been fake relaxation of border measured with limitations regarding COE issuance dates and absurd paperwork which makes me feel hopeless. It’s hard when people keep asking me about updates on Japan and for months on end, I have nothing to answer. 

Throughout all of this, I’m grateful to my parents and close friends for endlessly supporting me and believing in my success. 

What do you think should be done to help and support stranded students in Japan?

Let the 2020 and 2021 COE holders enter before this year ends without any complicated procedures. Increase the daily capacity, keep the borders open even if another wave comes.

Japan needs to learn how to live with COVID-19 much as other countries have. Reducing the quarantine period for vaccinated students of 10 to 14 days requires a lot of money from students they don’t necessarily have. 

What about your uni in Japan? Are they giving you enough support?

I don’t know what to answer here. Recently, it’s been a lot of answers like “Please wait patiently for further updates and detailed information while enjoying your online studies”. I am tired. 

What backup plan do you have?

I’m not giving up on Japan because as difficult as the situation is, I have already invested too much time and energy. 

What advice would you give foreign students who want to study in Japan?

Given the lack of updates on Japan and their travel rules, I don’t think I can give advice. I, myself, would very much like to know what it’s like to study there.