Creating a Society Where Left-Behind Children Can Move Forward in Life
How Best to Use My Limited Time in This World
I am currently working for the AIDS Orphan Support NGO PLAS. AIDS orphans are children under the age of 18 who have lost one or both parents to AIDS. In Africa, many AIDS orphans live in inhumane conditions, facing discrimination in their communities owing to their association with AIDS, on top of the pain of losing their parents. Unable to attend school, they lose hope in life. PLAS was founded in order to do something to help these children.
To date, PLAS has worked mainly in Kenya and Uganda, building and supporting schools that AIDS orphans can attend, and educating people on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The two pillars of our activities currently are the "Livelihood Improvement Approach" to help HIV-positive single mothers raising AIDS orphans to be economically independent, and the "Life Planning Programme" to enable children and their guardians to plan positive pathways forward in life. My roles as Executive Director include procurement of funds to sustain our activities, publicity, financial management planning, staff recruitment and training, event planning, and strengthening of corporate partnerships. We also develop projects in collaboration with local partner NGOs, and I'm involved in training for capability strengthening designed to bring out the potential of local staff and enable them to conduct even better activities.
What first inspired me to seek a job like this was a documentary film that I watched while studying abroad during my time as an ICU student. I was enthralled by the sight of children striving to get the most of life in the midst of civil war in Uganda, along with the country's vast and beautiful landscapes. It made me want to go there myself. When I returned to Japan after my study abroad, I found a volunteer activity that involved spending several months in Uganda, and decided to participate in it once I graduated from ICU. When I mentioned this plan to a friend of mine (one of the founding members of PLAS), they told me they had just started working to support AIDS orphans in Uganda, and asked me to help out with these activities seeing as I'd be going to Uganda anyway. So I did. Encountering AIDS orphans and HIV-positive people during these activities was truly a turning point in my life. Seeing these individuals determined to survive and thrive in such a harsh environment was inspiring, and I decided that I too wanted a job where I could be there for people and support them in their lives.
By that time, however, I had already secured a graduate job offer at a foreign-owned company in the financial sector. I had doubts as to whether I should really go ahead with this job after having my whole value outlook transformed by my experience in Uganda, but I decided to go ahead with it anyway. While working full time I also remained involved in PLAS activities on a voluntary basis after work and on days off. Day after day I asked myself the same question: what do I really want to do with my limited time in this world?
The office where I worked was on the 30th floor of a building in Marunouchi, Tokyo, and the views of the sun setting in the western sky were magnificent. Whenever I gazed at the sunset, I'd remember the beautiful sight of the sun setting on the horizon in Uganda, and the AIDS orphans I had met there. We all see the same setting sun, so why are our circumstances so different just because we were born in different places? Just around the time that I was having these thoughts, I was told that PLAS was expanding its activities. They asked me to quit my job and come and work for them. I submitted my resignation immediately and moved to PLAS, and that's where I still am today.
Sensing the "High Quality" of Learning in Dialogue-Oriented Classes at ICU
I attended a senior high school affiliated with ICU, but even when I started comparing ICU to other universities I couldn't imagine going anywhere else. The first thing that appealed to me was the environment. I was attracted by the idea of a campus enveloped in greenery, where you could see the broad skies above, rather than being surrounded by concrete. I thought that such an environment would be conducive to learning, too. Another thing that convinced me to enroll was the excellent study abroad program. It offered a wealth of opportunities and a wide variety of choices that I felt couldn't be matched by any other university. I went on a short-term study abroad to Canada in my first year, then to California in the United States on an exchange program in my third to fourth years.
At ICU, I was in what was then known as the Divisions of International Studies, and my studies focused especially on international development and international cooperation. The thing I valued most was going out into the field to verify what I had learned in the classroom. I used the long vacation periods to participate in work camps in places like Thailand and Bangladesh. When I returned to ICU after these experiences in the field, the things my professors said and the discussions I had with my classmates seemed to have greater depth and be easier to absorb.
While I cherished opportunities to learn in the field, I also appreciated the quality and depth of content in the classes I took at ICU. Before entering ICU, I had the impression that university classes involved professors lecturing to groups of around 100 students, but ICU classes were the opposite. Most were conducted in small groups of less than 20 students, using dialogue and discussion to learn in greater depth. My professors were extremely accessible, and when I asked a question I would often get a response that was many times more comprehensive than expected. I learned an immeasurable amount from this day-to-day learning, and I now believe the choices available later in life hinge greatly on whether students take a passive approach to their learning or an active one.
A Life Enriched by ICU's Liberal Arts
Countless aspects of what I learned at ICU still live within me today, but the greatest asset I gained was a grounding in how to conduct a proper discussion. Regular classes at ICU are built on a foundation of dialogue and debate. You learn to share your own opinions and respect the opinions expressed by others, and come to understand the process by which people arrive at their ideas. When you can't agree on a goal, rather than imposing your own views, you work together to establish a different goal. I was able to experience this kind of training in many forms during classes at ICU. Today, I encounter a variety of challenges when working together with people from different cultural backgrounds in Africa, but I genuinely feel that the discussion style I honed at ICU is serving me well.
The critical thinking approach that ICU imparted has also proven a major strength for me. In the field of international cooperation, it's especially important to question whether the information that you see and hear is really true. For example, even if you obtain information from documents or online that tells you that people in a certain region are suffering from poverty, the only way to understand the lifestyles and problems of the people living in that region is actually to go there and see for yourself. Even in the course of my work today, I habitually ask myself things like, "Is this really the right approach?" and "isn't there a better way of doing things?"
I think that what enriched my life more than anything was ICU's liberal arts. At the same time as delving deeper into the field of international relations, I took classes in biology, anthropology, art, and a variety of other areas. Through these classes I developed a particularly strong interest in art, and I often visit art galleries even today. But this goes beyond a mere hobby: I've even launched a charity art project in collaboration with ICU alumni working in the art world. What I gained from liberal arts was an opportunity to look beyond any single viewpoint, and to learn that the world is composed of complex intersections of all sorts of different phenomena, whether they be artistic, cultural, biological, or cosmological.
I believe that ICU provides an environment where students can pursue their own academic interests to their heart's content. You will surely be inspired by the breadth and depth of perspective of those you study with, including international students. I hope that you too will use this precious environment and the diverse forms of learning and experience it offers to identify your own pathway forward, and embark on a journey that you truly believe in.
AIDS Orphan Support NGO PLAS
2006 B.A. in Arts and Sciences (International Relations)
Mio Kojima participated in volunteer projects in Uganda for around three months after graduating from ICU, then worked for around three years at JP Morgan Japan while also pursuing activities as a volunteer for PLAS. She gained employment at PLAS in 2010. In 2016 Kojima became a Fellow in the Japanese Women's Leadership Initiative, a program sponsored by The Fish Family Foundation in the United States that selects Japanese women to be driving forces for change in Japanese society.