A Japanese university student shares her most memorable observations after a short visit to an American university town.

For three weeks between February 14 and March 6, my family and I hosted a special visitor from Japan, whom I’ll call “Natsumi” in this article, and it turned into a truly unforgettable experience. Natsumi is a 19-year-old second-year university student who attends an internationally-focused school in western Tokyo. I originally knew her as a junior high school student while I was working on the JET Program in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, but we’ve kept in touch over the years and she’s now essentially my Japanese little sister. Always eager to improve her English and meet new people from around the world, Natsumi took a short trip to Australia during her high school years, and ever since had been looking forward to the day when she could study abroad as a university student. But with so many countries to choose from, she wanted to be absolutely certain in her decision. So, what better way to make up her mind than to spend some time at a typical New England public university while visiting her big sister at the same time?

Natsumi arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport on the coldest night of the year, but was nevertheless ecstatic to have finally made it to America. The next few weeks were a whirl of meeting new people, trying new food, and visiting new places. However, in the interest of not rambling on to much about all of her different cultural experiences, I’d like to focus on the top five differences between American and Japanese universities that she found most surprising.

Natsumi’s observations were made as a short-term visitor to a town called Storrs in the tiny state of Connecticut. She wasn’t actually enrolled in classes, but had plenty of time to explore the campus and joined in certain activities over the span of three weeks. These are, of course, the observations of just one individual, and do not necessarily hold true for every Japanese person, nor every American university.

1. The Campus is huge

Natsumi’s first reaction upon setting foot on an American university campus was that it was absolutely ginormous compared to her own university’s. Of course, this point probably has a lot to do with the fact that the university where this writer works, the University of Connecticut (known locally as “UConn”), is a large public school in a rural setting with an undergraduate enrollment of roughly 19,000 and an additional graduate population of 7,000 at the main campus. During her first few days, Natsumi got lost many times while trying to find her way around the different buildings on campus, and she was floored that it could take 20–30 minutes just to walk from one side of the campus to the other. To top it off, there are no campus gates or curfews like they have many Japanese universities. By the time Natsumi had finally started finding her way around, it was already time to go home…

▼ An example of what it looks like when your university is, for all intents and purposes, basically a town in itself

campusUniversity of Connecticut

2. And so is the food

Speaking of ginormous things, one of Natsumi’s personal quests during her time in America was to try a different kind of junk food every day. (Un)luckily for her, her American host family actually eats quite healthily, but she wasn’t too worried about her mission because there were bound to be all kinds of delicious and high-calorie snacks on campus to satisfy ravenous college kids.

That being said, nothing could have prepared Natsumi for her first encounter with some good old American food sizes. On her first day, she innocently ordered a chocolate chip cookie at one of the campus cafes. I then received a message saying, “It’s literally the same size as my face!” along with the following photo:

▼ It took her three days, but she eventually vanquished the beast.


Similarly, here’s what happened when she bought a single slice of pizza at the university’s main food court:


Granted, Natsumi does have a very small head to begin with, but as she told me later, “I’ll never forget the moment when I first saw the sight of that giant cookie!”

3. The mascots, oh, the mascots!

From my own experience as an American who completed both my undergraduate and graduate studies in the U.S., I think that mascots are an integral part of American university life. Each school has its own distinct mascot, which plays a huge role in promoting the university around the country (especially the sports teams) and appears on all sorts of university merchandise. Take UConn’s Husky mascot, for example; UConn students are collectively referred to as “Huskies,” and during a short walk through campus you will inevitably see any number of students wearing shirts, hoodies, pants, and other gear with the husky logo.

▼ Seriously, it pops up everywhere–even on the campus ice rink (circled in red)!


▼ A great spot for a photo op


If, like Natsumi, you’re not from the U.S., perhaps the concept of a university mascot seems a bit puzzling, or even strange, to you. However, despite the lack of any kind of identifying mascot at her own university, Natsumi was immediately smitten with the husky (whose name is Jonathan, by the way), so she set out to buy a husky key chain at the local university goods store. She then proceeded to include the miniature Jonathan in pictures of every meal she ate while in America.

▼ Jonathan for scale


After witnessing the American students’ love for their university mascot and their general school pride expressed in the ubiquity of school merchandise everywhere, Natsumi got to thinking: “It’s too bad Japanese universities don’t have cute or cool mascots…” 

4. Cohabiting couples

During her stay in Connecticut, Natsumi volunteered twice per week in two of the Japanese language classes on campus. This experience not only kept her schedule busy but also let her meet many students, who were more than happy to share their experiences of American college life with her. She became particularly close with one female third-year student, who invited her over to her apartment for dinner one night. The day finally came and Natsumi showed up at the apartment…only to be greeted by the girl’s boyfriend, who also lived there!

“What?!” Natsumi thought. “Girlfriend and boyfriend undergraduate students live together in America?? That would be unthinkable in Japan!” 

While I personally wouldn’t say that it’s the norm since a great deal of students live in on-campus dormitories at American universities, I also don’t feel that it’s unusual to hear of undergraduate students of opposite sexes, including couples, living together in off-campus housing. When I asked Natsumi to explain more about the situation in Japan, here’s what she had to say:

“In Japan, it’s common for adult couples to live together, but not so much for students. Even adults wait a long time for their relationship to progress before moving in together.

I personally think it’s a good idea if you want to save some money…but at the same time, I’d worry that something could go wrong–everything from breaking up to having a baby by accident…”

5. Animals, animals everywhere!

This last observation is probably less about Japan-U.S. university differences and more about city vs. rural university differences, but it still left a lasting impression in Natsumi’s mind.

When I asked her to tell me the first thing that pops into her head when she thinks of UConn today, it’s the fact that Squirrels. Are. Everywhere. In fact, she even took the time to make a photo compilation of all of her squirrel shots:


As someone who grew up surrounded by the furry critters, I couldn’t help but laugh at her strange fascination with the little guys as they scurried around looking for acorns. When I remarked, “They’re just squirrels!” she replied, “We also have squirrels in Japan, but they’re a bit different looking and are usually only found in the mountains. It’s rare to see them among so many people like this.” Guess I’ll never look at squirrels in the same way again!

Bushy-tailed rodents aside, as a result of having a large College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, UConn also keeps many farm animals, including chickens, pigs, sheep, horses, and cows, on university premises. I feel like keeping animals on campus is fairly typical of a large rural school in America, but Natsumi commented that it’s very rare in Japan, unless the school itself is focused on agriculture. As a result, she had a wonderful time walking around and visiting the different animals–especially the cows.

 ▼ Posing with a couple of dairy calves, which will one day provide milk to make the university’s famous ice cream


▼ Master of…the bovines??


So what was Natsumi’s ultimate impression after her three-week-long stay in the U.S. came to an end? The visit further increased her desire to be accepted into an American study abroad program, and now she’s extremely motivated to work hard on her academic English. She can’t wait to have a mascot to call her own, and to watch the frolicking squirrels while she eats a giant cookie. Please wish her good luck in her studies, everyone!

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