Ashinaga interns assist needy orphans in Uganda, Japan

Orphans pose for a picture in front of the Ashinaga Terakoya Hall for Literacy Education. The Ashinaga internship program provides volunteer opportunities for student tutors in Japan and Uganda. Photo By: Ashinaga.org
Orphans pose for a picture in front of the Ashinaga Terakoya Hall for Literacy Education. The Ashinaga internship program provides volunteer opportunities for student tutors in Japan and Uganda. Photo By:  Ashinaga.org
Orphans pose for a picture in front of the Ashinaga Terakoya Hall for Literacy Education. The Ashinaga
internship program provides volunteer opportunities for student tutors in Japan and Uganda. Photo By: Ashinaga.org

With summer only a few months away, the pressure is on for students to obtain internships, fellowships and various other opportunities worthy of occupying space on a résumé. And while New York City may be the premier location for such possibilities, one should not feel confined by the Nation’s borders within their search. Last summer, for example, Contessa Mwedzi ‘13 worked for Ashinaga, a Japanese-based organization, as a tutor for students in Uganda.

The non-profit organization, which strives to provide financial support, as well as psychosocial and educational resources for orphans who lost their parents to AIDS, car accidents and other devastating circumstances, has locations in both Japan and Uganda.

The care and treatment of orphans has been an issue of the utmost importance for Ashinaga President and Founder Yoshiomi Tomai for the last fifty years, starting when he was around twenty-eight-years-old.

“I began working with orphans when my mother died an accident. I cared for her for a month. During that time I recognized issues in the government with [how they cared for these children],” Tomai said.

Tomai, a journalist at the time, discovered he could use his abilities and power to point out flaws he spotted within the system and make the public more aware of them.

“As a journalist I focused on three main points that needed to be changed: the medical emergency environment in hospitals were not very organized; there was no financial support available for the families left behind; the promotion of harsher legal punishments for the people who caused these accidents,” Tomai stated.

Forty-five years ago, Tomai believed that he could make a difference in these kids’ lives. “Throughout those five years, I used my pen and written word to support the victims. I realized through my abilities these children who lost parents did not have the means to go to school.”

Tomai has spent the last forty-five years fundraising and building his non-profit organization. Today, through this program, students are supplied the means to obtain a higher education. In fact, every month in Okinawa, 4,000 participating students receive scholarship money. In the history of the organization, around 1 billion US dollars have been raised, and 90,000 orphans have received some sort of support.

The program in Uganda works similarly to the one in Japan. Orphaned students who wish to attend university in either America or Japan, are provided with tutors who coach them on their English abilities, prep them for exams like the SAT, with the focus on the reading and writing portions, and shed some light on what college life is all about.

Contessa Mwedzi ‘13 came across the opportunity to spend part of the summer tutoring students in Uganda through working with the the College’s Career Development Office while studying abroad in Paris last spring. At first glance, it differed from her previous internship opportunities.

“I got to be on the field with the people I was helping. That’s one of the primary reasons I got involved,” Mwedzi explained.

While in Paris, she worked on a project to help protect waste-pickers in developing nations. The job required her to research these workers rather than actually interacting with them. She wanted a chance to contribute something on a more personal level to the lives of people.

Mwedzi continued, “As an international student, I didn’t get the opportunity to come and visit Vassar before applying. I had the opportunity, however, to meet a student who was coming to Vassar—he graduated last year. Through our interactions, I was able to learn about Vassar while he was experiencing it. So,I just wanted to return the favor to someone else and to give my students an opportunity to find out as much as they could about a school they could possibly be spending the next four years of their life at; Or, at least provide some insight into studying abroad.”

Of her experience, Mwedzi noted  that  she ended up learning a lot from the students she worked closely with. “During the camp, with fifty teenagers we participated in a 30k/6 hour walk in a very mountainous region. And the whole point was to learn to work together. And so, one of the rules of the walk was you’re not allowed to leave members behind. So, as much as you want to get to the goal, you have to motivate others and work with them. I learned a lot about myself, and a lot about working in a group. Sometimes I would want to go off on my own, but I would get tired. But when I stayed with the group we motivated each other. It was a very simple lesson for life.”

Mwedzi concluded, summarizing her overall experience as well as the purpose of Ashinaga,“We all possess gifts that we can use to bless, or make an impact on other people’s lives. Very easily. Without even going too much out of our way. That’s the biggest takeaway from this experience.”

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