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Max Sigal | Northwestern '20

Within Reach

Max Sigal, Study Abroad ’18, Northwestern ’20
Integrated Science Program, Chemistry, Biological Sciences

Me (Max), back left, with my class of 10 and teacher, front right

When I first entered Northwestern, I never dreamed that I would be able to study abroad. As a low-income student who struggled to pay the bare minimum, the concept of spending thousands of dollars on a single affair seemed out of reach. While it did seem like a “life-changing experience,” as so many people say, I pushed the idea away―up until I started taking Japanese in my sophomore year. Thanks to the wonderful teaching of my professor Yumi Shiojima, I quickly fell in love with the language and knew I had to visit Japan before my time at Northwestern was up.

Attempting Kyudo, traditional Japanese archery (but failing, as seen by the high school student’s reaction to my shot)

By visiting the Office of Fellowships and receiving valuable essay-writing help, I applied for and received two different scholarships: The Gilman Scholarship and the Freeman-ASIA Scholarship. With these scholarships, I was able to travel to Hakodate, Japan for two months while I studied at an intensive Japanese language program called HIF.

Throughout my time in Hakodate, I learned about the community through cultural activities and my host family. I dedicated as much time as I could to studying for my Japanese class and exploring the local town. I got to attend the Hakodate Squid Festival, the largest summer event in Hakodate. Wasshoi Hakodate consists of parades, which involve over 20,000 paraders. Some women dressed in kimono dance traditional Hakodate Port Dance, some perform passionate YOSAKOI dance, and the others dance Squid Dance, Hakodate’s specialty. Squid Dance is so easy that the spectators can join the parade and dance it together. I also tried Kyudo (Japanese archery), made Soba (traditional Japanese buckwheat noodles), and helped teach English in the elderly community.

Xie, myself, and Mitchell, all Northwestern students, enjoy the beginning of the Hakodate Squid Festival

However, sometimes the bliss was interrupted with the stark truth that I couldn’t afford some things that the other students could. More than a few times, I wanted to hang out with other students but decided not to since they were going to fancy restaurants to eat, or I decided to walk back home rather than pay the extra fee for the tram ride back. Although sometimes I felt discouraged, I discovered so many new things about Japan that I had never known existed, and I became even more infatuated. I didn’t want my lack of money to weigh me down, and I realized that spending only a few months in Japan would never be enough; I wanted to learn about ways to spend my future in Japan.

Learning to play the Shinobue, a high-pitched Japanese transverse flute used in Kabuki theatre

During the HIF program, there was a period of four or five days where were able take a break and travel. I thought this would be an ideal time to learn more about different post-graduation opportunities in Japan by traveling to Tokyo and interviewing various people. Most importantly, I was hoping to interview a research professor at the University of Tokyo, someone with whom I hoped to conduct research during graduate school. However, being a low-income student, this presented a large challenge. While my program was almost fully paid for by scholarships, taking a trip outside of the program would cause me to take out loans. With the help of another student and close friend, I was able to carefully detail every cost of the trip and save money where I could, allowing me to travel to Tokyo with only a small loan.

Me, left, with my host parents and housemate

In Tokyo, I learned a lot about various opportunities in Japan and made a connection with the research professor. He even invited me to work in his laboratory the following summer! Not only did I succeed in learning more about my future direction and goals, but I was also able to make a vital connection in the research world.

While the cost of study abroad programs can be scary for low-income students, I encourage those who are interested to seek out opportunities where they can. Studying abroad can expand your horizons by exposing you to different cultures and ideologies as well as by helping you determine what you want to do with your future. Being low-income is a barrier that can be overcome; it’s something that you can use as motivation to push yourself towards your goals and what you want to become.


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