Reflections From the Pacific Rim

Once every three years, a group of students from the University of Puget Sound travels to Asia for nine months of rigorous academic work and experiential learning. Visiting eight or more nations, the group engages with different systems of culture, economics, politics, religion, and philosophy. Two students from the 2017–18 PacRim group shared stories about their experiences.

A Kyoto Morning

By Claire Wallace ’19

My commute in Japan was longer than those of the other PacRim students. From the suburbs outside the city, here I lived with my host mother, it took about an hour and a half to get to class in downtown Kyoto. The monthlong homestay gave me a taste of everyday life in Kyoto, a thriving city known as the historic capital of Japan. I hiked up Mount Hiei, ate fresh mochi on Nara Street, and wandered through the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari. After a two-month whirlwind of traveling in Asia, Kyoto was a much-needed respite.

Due to the possibility of missed buses and early morning Kyoto traffic, my homestay mother insisted that I leave early. Although there were moments that I was very thankful for that early morning departure, other days I was left with an hour or more of time on my hands before our classroom opened at 9 a.m. Sometimes I spent these mornings at cafés, other times calling my parents, but my favorite moments were when I ended up walking through the nearby neighborhoods.

I never started out with the goal of simply walking, but usually had a purpose in mind. One morning, I needed to find a restroom. Like any good caffeine addict, I knew where the nearest Starbucks was, but I had just come from that way, and I disliked retracing my steps. I struck out in another direction, through a neighborhood with a temple at the end. Both the map and past experiences indicated that there should have been a restroom near the entrance to the temple complex. Both were right, yet I failed to factor in the time, for, like most places early in the morning, it was closed. I had 30 minutes to 9, and I figured that distracting myself while wandering was a reasonable backup plan.

The area was not touched by modern architecture, and the neutral white and grays combined perfectly with the overcast sky; however, the main color that dominates my memory is green. The green of trees peeking over the tops of walls, of gardens glimpsed through open gates, and the moss growing abundantly through the cracks of stone walls. At that moment, I could imagine living there, spending my mornings walking among the quiet houses of Kyoto.

My Academic Awakening at a Mongolian Ger

By Indigo DaCosta ’19

We could consider PacRim a poster child for experiential learning: Eight months traveling around Asia and taking classes on the road challenges us to translate immersive experiences into academic knowledge. But PacRim also has a classroom component that enhances and contextualizes our experiences. Before leaving, I knew that PacRim would challenge me in many ways, but I didn’t anticipate how it would challenge me academically.

In Mongolia, we had an opportunity to stay in traditional yurts, called gers, in the countryside. Our gers had small fire pits, and to me, the ger was the conceptual hearth: It was the center of community, a place of connecting with others, and, of course, literal warmth. It was also the center for class discussion about imperialism and globalization. I followed along until I became lost in the terminology that some of my classmates were using, and that’s when I realized that they were all politics and government majors. There was a lull in the conversation, and I expressed my confusion by explaining, “I’m an English major.”

A unique aspect of PacRim is that we don’t choose our classes; the professors determine them based on their specialties and the host country. Before PacRim, I had considered other fields of study a source of anxiety, not a potential for growth. What I didn’t realize at that moment in the ger was how much I did understand. I had been absorbing the concepts and learning the terminology along the way. I came to understand how much the English and politics and government disciplines have in common, specifically critical analysis and clear writing. That insight reminded me that my skills are applicable outside my field of study.

Beyond that, studying politics and government helps one understand a place in its current moment in time. In addition to learning about Mongolia, I was learning through the lens of another discipline and seeing my experiences abroad in a new way.

Most people probably don’t associate bundling up in front of a ger’s hearth with moments of academic self-realization, but that’s where it happened for me. Interdisciplinary learning is vital to a liberal arts education, so even in Mongolia, I know I’m at Puget Sound. I’m an English major, but more than that, I’m a liberal arts student who can engage with the world from a number of different perspectives.

More photos from PacRim:



Published Feb. 1, 2018
Thank you to the PacRim students who contributed photos for this story.