At a young age, we were taught to walk in impeccably straight lines, stand only when called upon, and to always be harmonious with classmates. I grew up storing inside all my divergent opinions, faking my interests so I could like the same things as my classmates, and living in constant fear that I would have to eat lunch alone if I expressed an idea that was out of the norm.
Growing up in a small town in Japan, I always felt trapped. At a young age, we were taught to walk in impeccably straight lines, stand only when called upon, and to always be harmonious with classmates. I grew up storing inside all my divergent opinions, faking my interests so I could like the same things as my classmates, and living in constant fear that I would have to eat lunch alone if I expressed an idea that was out of the norm. I intentionally chose a high school where none of the students from my junior high school chose to go, hoping to see myself change in a new environment. When things were not any different at the end of high school, I knew it was time for more drastic change. I needed to see something new. I needed to study abroad.
Because I had been educated at local public schools without having any long-term overseas experiences and any proper English language training, my parents were adamantly against me leaving Japan. It was daunting to everyone of course, like jumping into the darkest of waters without really even knowing how to swim. But through sheer determination and extensive research on how to attend a quality American university, I ended up at a 2-year community college in California, hoping to transfer to a 4-year college thereafter.
The golden plan? Not so much. First, finding housing as an international student at a community college was not easy. There were weeks when I slept on the floor with one lamp, had to take buses to a friend’s house to shower, and had to lug home gallons of mineral water from Safeway when I got allergic reactions to the local water. In order to pass the TOEFFL (English language proficiency) exam, I had to travel to San Francisco monthly and stay at hostels overnight since exams ran too late for last trains. When I took political science classes, what seemed to be common sense to every American was nowhere in my brain. I practiced writing essays every single day for two years and spent every office hour opportunity with professors to get straight As. Two years later when I finally got accepted to Columbia University Barnard College, every frustration and sleepless night was more than worth it. Looking back, I had never leaned in so hard, against all odds and against everyone’s expectations. I have never leaned back ever since.
After graduating, I ironically returned to Japan, knowing that I must have not been alone in my struggles in my home country. I began furiously blogging about my experiences of studying abroad, hoping my words could help just one more person break out of their confinement like I had. I quickly began receiving emails from Japanese youth who read my stories. They were hoping to study at an American university and thanked me for opening their eyes to new avenues to get there. I ended up mentoring several students who successfully entered Ivy League universities in the U.S. and began to realize I could do so much more.
Today, I continue this line of work with αALPHA LEADERS, a start-up I joined after graduation to help Japanese students study abroad, realize new dreams, attend graduate schools, and get their dream jobs back in Japan. There are so many talented, ambitious, uniquely-minded individuals in Japan who are on the cusp of taking that important first step to lean in and to become their real selves. I am so grateful that I had the chance to lean in, and hope to help others do the same throughout Japan.
A U.S. Foreign Service Officer encourages students in South Korea to lean in and fight their fears.
Booyeon Lee Allen
U.S. Foreign Service Officer