“Don’t touch these,” she said of the thorn-covered prickly pear.
Most of the students had never before seen naturally growing cactus.
“We were expecting cactus that looks like the ones in the cartoons,” said Yuri Teraoka, 20, a physics student from Tohoku University in Japan. She held up her arms to simulate a Saguaro cactus, and giggled.
Soon the students were using tongs to pick segments from the cactus, which were to be dried and later replanted in one of 16 designated spots around the landfill. Once established, the new cactus patches will provide nesting habitat for the cactus wren and the endangered California gnatcatcher, two birds native to the area.
The project is one of several involving a group of 44 exchange students enrolled at the new Tohoku University Center at UC Riverside. Last Monday, Feb. 11, UCR and Riverside city officials hosted representatives of the Japanese university to officially mark the establishment of the new center, which will act as a funnel for Tohoku students wanting to study here. It also will assist UCR students who want to travel in the other direction.
Tohoku University is in Sendai, which has been a sister city to Riverside for more than 50 years. It is one of Japan’s largest universities with 10 separate colleges and nearly 20,000 students. UCR has slightly more than 21,000 students.
Officials said the new center will further strengthen the connection between the two cities, a relationship that escalated a notch two years ago when Riverside reached out in support following a large earthquake and tsunami that destroyed much of the Sendai region.
The two universities began talking about expanding their cooperative program three years ago. And last year, the Japanese government awarded Tohoku University a $10 million grant to increase international study over the next five years. Tohoku will be sending its international study students exclusively to UCR.
The center is not a separate facility, but will have its own staff and coordinate programs for students coming from and going to Tohoku University. In one way, it is a unique endeavor.
“This is one of a kind,” said Bronwyn Jenkins-Deas, director of International Education Programs for UCR Extension.
What makes it different, she said, is the effort to connect the exchange students’ projects beyond the campus, such as the ecological work at the El Sobrante Landfill.
“Both of us are going to work really hard to get the students into the community,” Jenkins-Deas said of the two universities.
Beyond the environmental projects, the current crop of students will be assigned to alternative energy and engineering work beyond the campus boundaries. Jenkins-Deas foresees assignments with city government, local schools and museums.
“I see at least 70 new projects that could come as a result of this,” she said. “Every time we contact someone, about five more ideas come out of things we can do in the future. It just builds, and it’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Tohoku University President Susumu Satomi said he expects the number of students to expand, too. Three years ago, Tohoku sent 14 students to study at UCR. This year, the total could be as many as 160.
“We are now looking to increase to 300 next year,” Satomi said, and in subsequent years, “we hope much more.”
Japan has not traditionally had large international study programs at its universities but in recent years has begun expanding such opportunities. Satomi said he thinks the international experience is good for Japanese students, who live in a largely homogenous society.
By studying abroad, he said, students “understand diverse value and gain different perspectives. At the same time, (they) discover themselves.”
CACTUS AND CULTURE
Although the cactus-picking group at the landfill had been in Riverside only a few days, the diversity Satomi spoke of already had touched some of them.
“I learned about multiculturalism,” said Chika Masuda, 20, a cultural anthropology student from Sendai.
She’s also seen that there are sometimes waves in the melting pot.
“I thought American people were used to immigrants, but still there are a lot of problems,” she said.
Because they were immersed in an environmental project, many of the students were curious about ways in which the region deals with its waste.
“I want to see what California and Riverside do with their trash,” said Teraoka, “because we have such a limited amount of land. (This project) won’t directly affect my future, but thinking about restoring the environment will, because Japan is facing a huge environmental problem. I’m a science student – maybe I can think of a way to help.”
Others admitted some confusion. The previous day they had spent time building protective dwellings for burrowing owls. Ayano Tabe, 20, of Fukushima, said she had a hard time reconciling that effort with some of the litter she had seen.
“People use high-tech systems to protect the owls,” Tabe said. “But I found some garbage in an area in the mountains. I don’t understand.”
Randy Solis, a special projects instructor for UCR Extension, was on site with the students. He said Tabe’s insight is part of the program.
“The idea was to show them what we in the U.S. do as far as the environment,” Solis said. “What can they take back? And what can they teach us?”
Three groups of UCR students have traveled to Sendai in the past two years for similar programs, and Jenkins-Deas said she expects that travel to increase as well.
“As we engage our different communities,” she said, “it will give us the opportunity to look for other funding sources (for the center). This is the beginning of five years of opportunities that we’ve never done in international education.”