By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

Mayumi Wood feeds on the youthful energy and cacophony of languages and accents that surround her in the International Services Program office at Merced College, where she works.

Scratch that. Where she usually works.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the student support coordinator now sits in her home office working with her international students—holding onto their academic futures with one hand and navigating Zoom with the other.

“I know for them it’s difficult to only communicate through the internet,” said Wood, a native of Japan. “I know they feel welcome in our office. We can discuss what it’s like to learn a difficult culture. It’s comforting for them. They miss that right now.”

When the pandemic hit and the campus went virtual in March 2020, Wood set up a Canvas group of her international students to mimic the feel of their office—to share information, to give students a place to talk to each other and for her to flood the zone with encouragement.

But the program has taken a big hit since. Nearly half of the 120 international students who started the 2019-20 academic year at Merced College left and returned to their home countries when the pandemic hit. Their parents were understandably worried about their safety.

Another 41 also went home, but are still taking online courses, hoping to return. A mere 20 live and study online in the Merced area.

Why would a young person travel so far for college in the first place?

“When they graduate from a university in the United States, they have more confidence,” Wood said. “They’re so happy because they managed to earn their diploma in a different language.”

International college students are adventurous, like two current Blue Devil baseball players—third-year student Kyohei Osato and second-year student Joichiro Oyama—who crossed the Pacific Ocean to work on business degrees, hone their English and play ball.

Osato, an outfielder and pitcher, went home for a month last summer. Other classmates went home to work, but Osato came right back. He wanted to finish school, and the 16-hour time difference was too hard.

Oyama has been in Merced the whole time, save for the six weeks he played for the Palo Alto Oaks in the Bay Area Collegiate League last summer.

They manage without classmates. Oyama leans on his baseball teammates for cultural and linguistic help.

“If I make mistakes in English grammar, they explain in an easier way to understand,” Oyama said.

Osato loves traveling throughout California.

“I love Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s very international. I like going to baseball games there.”

Merced College currently hosts students from Italy, Cambodia, Germany, the Philippines, Turkmenistan and China, but the majority come from Japan.

The College has working relationships with Japan College of Foreign Languages; the Human International University and Consortium; Yokohama High School in and around Tokyo and Osaka; and Nagano’s Saku Chosei High School.

“They refer students to us because they believe we will take good care of them,” Wood said.

The Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Homestay Program arranges meetings with potential students for Wood and college administrators. YES also matches international students with American host families.

“So many host families are very warm and welcoming,” said Wood, adding that the program always needs host families.

But 30 international applicants for 2020-21 couldn’t come to Merced because of the pandemic. Sixteen are currently enrolled and studying online. Wood says they’re determined to return for Fall 2021, when Merced College is planning to resume some courses in person.

Will Japan and other countries be ready to send them? Japan has been slow to roll out its vaccination plan. There is historical skepticism in Japan about vaccinations after two high-profile missteps in the 1970s and 1980s. Also, students are far down on the priority list to receive them.

Wood worries new students won’t be vaccinated in time to return in August.

“I can’t say to them, ‘Don’t worry. Just come,’” she said. “You just don’t know what will happen. We hope it will be fine.”


 

Merced College is always looking for host families for international students. For more information, check out the YES Homestay website. To ask questions about the program or to become a host family, contact Mayumi Wood at 209-384-6381 or wood.m@mccd.edu.