Have you ever done something so extreme that you shocked even yourself? Rushing headfirst with inexplicable conviction—voices of concern from your friends and family dissipating like whispers on the wind—as you bound forward and prepare to take a massive leap of faith? The moment you launch into the air is exhilarating indeed. But, as you begin to feel the pull of gravity and plummet back down into reality with no clear landing in sight, you begin to wonder in terror, “What on earth have I done!?”
That exact moment of panic struck me like a sledgehammer as I sat in my very first veterinary anatomy lecture, surrounded by classmates who were frantically scribbling symbols I could not read; while the professor spoke words I could not understand. I’m sure this experience doesn’t sound entirely unfamiliar to anyone who has taken anatomy. However, I must clarify that in this case, it didn’t simply feel like the professor was speaking another language—he was literally lecturing in Japanese.
To this day, the most extreme thing I have ever done was move across the world by myself and attempt to study veterinary medicine in my second language. At first, what shocked me most was my ability to actually get into school here. But now, after three of the most grueling years of education I have ever experienced, what I am most shocked by (and also most proud of) is the resilience I have built in continuing school here.
No one who gets into vet school is a stranger to hard work. We have all put in countless hours of studying difficult math and science curricula, usually while volunteering or working with animals in some capacity in our spare time. I personally remember many late nights in undergrad, pushing myself to do organic chemistry problem sets over and over until I dreamt of molecules in my sleep. I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian then, and I knew that earning as many A’s as possible would help me get closer to that goal. I studied hard, and my efforts eventually paid off. I was able to graduate magna cum laude and for a short time, I felt pretty unstoppable.
Yet, here I stood a few years later, staring at my name printed in red letters on a piece of paper taped to my veterinary anatomy professor’s office door. This indicated, for the entire world to see, that I had failed the first midterm. I honestly did not know what to do. I was working myself as hard as I possibly could. I spent hours going over anatomy lectures, trying to absorb not only the anatomical information itself, but also learning how to read and write the advanced Japanese kanji required to describe those features. Despite all of that effort, I couldn’t seem to get the terminology to stick. Trying to integrate language study, while learning new sciences proved to be more difficult than anticipated and all the new characters and sound combinations I was trying so earnestly to memorize began to blend and jumble into nonsense in my head. My brain, once so efficient at absorbing and retaining new information began to feel like a sieve trying to fill itself from a raging waterfall. Of course, I was also trying to balance anatomy with 12 other classes that required heavy memorization—biochemistry, physiology, bacteriology, parasitology, and histology, to name a few. Try as I might, I could not seem to keep up with my native classmates. When I attempted to study alongside them or ask them for help, I quickly became lost in their explanations and too embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t understand them.
I felt like a failure and a fraud in almost every capacity: academically, socially, and even ethnically. As a mixed-race Japanese person, I have always had an interest in learning the language and I took pride in my ability to speak advanced Japanese. But, it was now evident that as good as I thought I was, I felt like I was not good enough to perform academically at the level necessary. I failed a few more midterms and passed the rest by a razor-thin margin. My sense of identity was completely fractured, and I became very depressed and withdrawn.
After failing the second anatomy midterm, I was in a state of desperation. The exams featured no pictures or diagrams, but instead consisted of long, convoluted paragraphs with numerous fill-in-the-blanks. Under time pressure, I struggled to be able to understand the grammar of these incomplete sentences, which made it nearly impossible to write in the correct answer. It felt like no matter how much I studied, I would not be able to pass the final. I seriously considered withdrawing from school and returning to the U.S.—perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this after all. It was just too hard.
The next day after class, I meekly asked my anatomy professor if he had time to speak with me, and he escorted me into his office in silence. I expressed my concerns about my performance on the midterms and he pulled out my most recent exam. He sighed disappointedly as he looked at it, pointing out all the important sections I had failed to answer. When I opened my mouth to try to explain why I was struggling, all of my pent-up exhaustion, frustration, and shame welled up at once, and I began to cry in spite of myself. My professor was sympathetic but matter of fact—he acknowledged how difficult it must be for me to be the only non-native student. However, I needed to be able to overcome this language barrier if I eventually hoped to pass the national licensing exam. He also said that despite his busy schedule, he would always make time for students who were willing to work hard. And so, he kindly offered to tutor me one-on-one for an hour every week
With the support of my anatomy professor and countless hours of study, I managed to pass all of my classes my first semester. Although my GPA was the lowest it had ever been, I felt a sense of pride for the work that those grades represented. Even greater than the academic struggle was the mental struggle to stay engaged and motivated in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. To accomplish this, I absolutely needed to reframe my concept of success. I had to constantly remind myself that I chose to study in Japan for a reason: I wanted to gain a perspective that very few people have, and use that knowledge to help bridge the gap between American and Japanese veterinarians. My ultimate goal was therefore not centered on grades, but learning as much as possible in this six-year program. While I may not have felt like I was thriving in vet school, the most important thing to focus on was simply surviving it.
I am now close to finishing my third year, and although the demands keep increasing and language continues to be a challenge, I don’t feel nearly as hopeless as I did back in the first semester. Slowly but surely, my brain has begun to adapt, and assignments which once felt impossible, now seem somehow manageable. Persevering through difficult classwork has allowed me to partake in so many incredible hands-on procedures during practicals, such as my first oocyte retrieval or my first calf castration. These experiences have absolutely reignited my passion for the profession and made me so thankful that I did not quit during the first year. I still have a long way to go in my education and career, but I am finally starting to feel like that crazy leap of faith I took by coming to Japan wasn’t so crazy after all.