Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the significance of universities and their campuses both have been coming into question.
Known for its global education since it was founded in 1913 as a Jesuit school, Sophia University has advocated for a compact campus in Tokyo’s Yotsuya district, offering an environment for international students of different faculties to enjoy interactions with each other.
“As we wanted to stick to our style of learning, it took time for us to go online and prepare for spring classes while maintaining high-quality education,” said Sophia’s President Yoshiaki Terumichi, who spearheaded efforts to cope with the coronavirus crisis at the university, during an interview with The Japan Times on Aug. 6 at the university.
In response to the changing situation of the coronavirus outbreak, it has been a series of decisions, including the cancellation of graduation and entrance ceremonies, a shift to online classes and financial support to students in need.
Shift in teaching methods
For those who have just entered the university, stay-at-home days were totally different from what they had expected of campus life in the heart of Tokyo. According to a questionnaire on online classes at Sophia, many first-year students expressed feelings of isolation since they cannot study with classmates.
“We understand that those first-year students need special care,” said Terumichi, who invited them to the campus in mid-September, even though the autumn classes would basically continue to be conducted online. “Having learned from our experiences until now, I hope that we will be able to deal with the situation appropriately.”
The same questionnaire revealed that students in their sophomore year and beyond tended to be satisfied with online classes, pointing out their advantages in safety and flexibility in learning.
“We’ve discovered the potential in online classes although it was an unavoidable shift,” Terumichi noted.
For example, online tools will enable professors to have more flexibility in conducting their field research around the world, while also giving classes remotely and even delivering on-site reports.
“We want to explore such potential for the post-coronavirus era. Also, we should offer such flexibility to our students as well,” explained Terumichi, who expects that students will be able to attend classes of universities worldwide, as well as Sophia’s, either physically or online, wherever they may be located.
Although students are currently stranded in the countries where they are located as national borders still remain closed, the digital shift has brought universities around the world to an equal footing.
“Rather than regarding online classes as an involuntary alternative, we can see an expansion of freedom that may diversify learning styles and connect the world more easily,” the president noted.
From among its roughly 380 partner colleges and universities within the Jesuit network around the world, Sophia is developing a triangle program in collaboration with a university in the U.S. and one in Kenya. This will allow students of the three universities to attend the online classes of one another.
Sophia has additionally agreed on cooperation on bilateral online exchange programs with nine universities in seven countries.
Trying not to lag behind global education standards, in which universities are rapidly going online and actively engaging in attracting students, Sophia University is currently working to improve its digital environment in both hardware and software aspects.
If there is massive potential in online classes, what is the significance of the physical campus?
“There is unmeasurable value in sharing time and space with professors and fellow students. The campus is a basis on which a university can rely most heavily,” Terumichi said. “Our campus holds all our experiences and expertise of human development. In this campus, we have formed the foundation of our student’s thinking ability, with which they have taken to other countries.”
New programs ahead
With an eye on the future of the university, Terumichi noted that Sophia’s management should give 30 percent of its energy to firmly maintain its tradition and experience, another 30 percent for further development based on past achievements and the remaining 40 percent for creating something totally new.
As examples of the recent achievements and further development, the Sophia Program for Sustainable Futures, a new English-taught degree program aiming to raise the awareness standard of youths toward local and global sustainability, starts from this autumn semester, despite a difficult environment.
Also, Sophia is developing a new master’s program on international cooperation within the Graduate School of Global Studies, which will start accepting students from the spring semester of 2021.
“The program is geared for businesspeople who are working or want to work in the field of international cooperation. Responding to the increasing need for a master’s degree to work for international organizations, including nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, we want to provide candidates with their degree and an opportunity to learn about international cooperation in a structured manner,” Terumichi explained.
“Of course, we also want to encourage undergraduate students to move on to this new program that allows them to study with experienced businesspeople. We have always wanted to create such an environment as a university located in the heart of Tokyo,” the president said.
Regarding the remaining 40 percent for creating totally new things, Terumichi believes that they should reconsider and redefine what a university is and what campus means.
“I don’t mean to change our philosophy of establishment that dates back to the vision of the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, who visited Japan in 1549. Instead, we want to go back to the root of the philosophy and explore a new tack of a participatory approach involving students,” Terumichi said.
That is consistent with the words of Pope Francis, who said, “Your university as a whole ought to focus on the young, who should not only receive excellent education, but also be part of that education, offering their insights and sharing their vision and hopes for the future,” in his speech at Sophia University during his visit to Japan last November.
Having been able to welcome Pope Francis to the campus last year and sharing time with him, Terumichi feels a strong sense of responsibility to give something back to the university and beyond.
“His words really had an impact. Although his message of “walking with the poor and the outcasts of our world” is universal and that is consonant with Sophia’s mission of ‘Men and Women for Others, with Others,’ I realized anew that we were still a long way from fulfilling our mission,” Terumichi said.
“For Others, with Others” is all about understanding others in diversity. The university has been working to further globalize its campus through such efforts as opening a halal cafeteria and creating a prayer space.
“I’m proud of such a campus. This campus is a microcosm of society,” Terumichi said. And yet, the president is motivated to further improve and transform the campus into a new style by involving students further.
Coping with pandemic
“The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis that people throughout the world are facing in common at the same time. That’s an unprecedented experience in modern global society,” Terumichi pointed out. “There is no authority that can give a perfect explanation of what we are facing.”
While coping with the crisis and changing society, Terumichi expects students to give their thoughts to those who are left behind at home and overseas. He hopes that they begin with discussions among diverse students about what the world is experiencing now.
“It may spur rapid growth for young people to live in such an age of transition, where we are facing an outbreak of unknown infection, in addition to ongoing globalization and digitalization,” Terumichi said, adding that “They should think on their own, as what the previous generation experienced may not be useful anymore.”
In July, students of Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology; Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology; and Sophia University had an online roundtable and exchanged views and thoughts on the ongoing coronavirus situation in each country.
“It’s extremely important for students to discuss the issue with diverse people with different backgrounds,” the president said. “Sophia University has advocated for an environment that enables our students to do so. I hope they will make best use of it and get involved in the process of overcoming the crisis.”
In this regard, Terumichi believes that the university is responsible to offer rays of hope to young people and support their activities that may create new ideas in the process.
Reconfirming the inclusive words “Men and Women for Others, with Others” that can be applied to all people of any religion from any country, Sophia University will further pursue its mission to nurture young people that can contribute to global society.
“Although the words may sound overly simple, I constantly rediscover the value of this universal message,” Terumichi said. “As far as we have a campus culture in which we shall continue to pursue what is universal and what is essential, I believe that the university has its reason to exist.”
For more information on the university, visit https://www.sophia.ac.jp/eng/index.html .