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A farm in Japan helps students understand global relationships

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St. Olaf students Juliann Skarda ’17 (left) and Alexander Lao ’16 with some of the livestock they worked with as part of the Asian Rural Institute program.

For three St. Olaf College students, spending a summer working on a farm in Japan wasn’t simply about learning integrated organic farming techniques — it was also about developing leadership and community-building skills alongside a group of people from around the world.

As participants in the Asian Rural Institute (ARI) internship program, students Emily Bristol ’17, Alexander Lao ’16, and Juliann Skarda ’17 worked with people from 15 countries on a farm in Nasushiobara, Japan.

Founded in 1973, ARI invites and trains local grassroots leaders to more effectively serve in their communities as they work for the poor, the hungry, and the marginalized. Each year, the institute accepts some 30 leaders from around the world to take part in their Rural Leaders Training Program, which focuses on developing their leadership skills through integrative organic farming.

The internship gave the students hands-on experience in the day-to-day work of sustainable farming — from crop growing to livestock production — and an up-close look at the reality of living in a globalized community.

“Prior to my experience at ARI, I knew interesting tidbits of information about a lot of countries, but at ARI I learned meaningful things from the people who call that country home,” Lao says. “Now when I look at the map of the world, I do not just see shapes and words in the form of random countries. I see places in the world where I have friends.”

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St. Olaf student Juliann Skarda ’17 (second from right) works with other participants in the Asian Rural Institute program.

Living within the globalized community at ARI also opened the students’ eyes to the many struggles that each participant faces in the place they call home.

“Because I met these individuals, I have a larger awareness of political, religious, and environmental problems around the world,” says Bristol, who is majoring in biology at St. Olaf. “Living in the United States, it has been easy for me to ignore global issues. However, ARI brought these issues to the forefront of my mind, and it taught me about how rural leaders are alleviating poverty and bringing social justice to their communities.”

The internship also helped the students better understand the importance of establishing relationships with everyone, regardless of differences in cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

“People are complex, and sometimes we cannot fully understand the perspectives of others,” says Skarda, who is majoring in biology with a concentration in environmental science. “But we all live together on this planet, so we have to do our best to love and understand one another. It will never be perfect, but we must put forth our best effort so that we may live together.”

All three students earned academic credit for the internship, which was supported by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career and the Kloeck-Jenson Endowment for Peace and Justice and supervised by St. Olaf Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Political Science Katherine Tegtmeyer Pak.

As part of the college’s commitment to supporting students as they navigate potential career paths, the Piper Center offers numerous resources to help students secure internships that will enrich their studies and help them hone their professional skills. In the past year, 165 students earned academic credit for their internships. In addition to providing students with the ability to register their internships for academic credit, the Piper Center offers students funding for unpaid or underpaid internships.

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The Asian Rural Institute internship gave St. Olaf students hands-on experience in the day-to-day work of sustainable farming — from crop growing to livestock production — and an up-close look at the reality of living in a globalized community.

St. Olaf has worked with ARI for more than 25 years, and in 1991 the college awarded ARI founder Toshihiro Takami an honorary degree. St. Olaf students also participate in ARI as part of the Environmental Sustainability in Japan Interim class, which is supported by funding from the Henry L. Luce Foundation.

Lao, a biology major at St. Olaf, is planning to use the interpersonal skills and experience he gained at ARI as he pursues a career in the field of genetic counseling. Skarda, who is passionate about organic agriculture, is planning to pursue work with a nonprofit organization or NGO, particularly at the grassroots level. Bristol, based on her experience at ARI, is also interested in doing community development work with an NGO.

And each notes that their experience this summer gave them a new appreciation for the agricultural world.

Our soil at ARI allows us to grow crops. These crops feed us. Leftover food and damaged crops are fed to livestock. Livestock feed us and also provide us with the materials to enrich the soil and grow more crops. If we take care of the soil and our livestock, they nurture us and this cycle can continue,” says Skarda.

Lao says he has a new appreciation for the role farming plays in putting food on the table.

“I always knew in theory that farming was difficult work, but the truth is that I did not respect it as much as other professions like medicine or law since I’ve never experienced the work it takes to prepare food for over 50 people before,” says Lao. “The next time my order at the restaurant is taking a long time, though, I will be a bit more patient because I know how much work can go into putting a piece of chicken on a plate.”