Indiana State University Newsroom

Sea lions, dolphins, martial arts part of study abroad trip to Japan

December 3, 2010

Chelsea Howard has learned the hard way that sea lions are territorial animals.

While studying abroad in Japan last year, the sophomore English education major from Terre Haute landed a volunteer job at an aquarium. She had the opportunity to train dolphins and other sea mammals, but most of her responsibilities involved cleaning cages and training areas.

Because of their temperament, sea lions must be removed from their cages before a trainer can begin cleaning. One day, after finishing a cage, she found herself caught in the middle between two feuding sea lions.

One of the 400-pound male creatures charged barking toward Howard, who said she pushed herself against a wall. Meanwhile, bystanders yelled warnings in both English and Japanese.

"They're like, ‘don't move, don't move!' I'm just, like, standing there up against the wall... Had they not gotten control of them, there was a very high chance that I would have been bitten by the sea lion."

Howard was one of two ISU students who spent 10 months studying at Baiko University in Shimonoseki. She and Jack Ciancone, a junior linguistics major also from Terre Haute, returned to the U.S. in July from the city located on the southwestern tip of Honshu, Japan's largest island.

ISU currently maintains memberships or affiliations with six organizations and has individual partnerships with eight institutions throughout the world, said Janis Halpern, ISU's study abroad program director. The Baiko partnership with the Department of English dates back several decades.

Howard and Ciancone both said they were already interested in Japanese culture, but came about the trip different ways. Ciancone said he was deciding between studying in Japan or Argentina when ISU offered him a scholarship to Baiko.

"The scholarship was the big motivator," Ciancone said. "A year abroad, with the exception of the plane tickets, was actually cheaper than a year at ISU."

Howard learned about the opportunity in a Japanese course she shared with a sister of one of her high school friends. Her friend had already completed the Baiko program.

Meanwhile, Howard's interest in Japan strengthened.

"I fell in love with the language," she said. "So I went to learn the language, even though it doesn't have anything to do with my major."

The students soon discovered how important learning Japanese would be. Unlike some of Japan's larger metropolitan areas, no one in Shimonoseki speaks English.

"Chelsea and I both [were] in the same Japanese class and we'd only taken Japanese for one year, so we thought we were all big and expensive going over there with our one year of Japanese," Ciancone said. "So we thought we were proficient, but looking back on it we were terrible."

Howard said she developed a way to talk with her hands.

"I learned a new way of communicating without words, which was interesting to say the least," she said.

With time, and because they were totally immersed, both said their Japanese language skills greatly improved. In fact, Ciancone said his Japanese is now much better than his Spanish and Howard noticed she often has a difficult time communicating in English.

For Howard, it all comes down to how much effort a person invests into learning the language.

"Had I made only friends who spoke English and not studied and not had any goals with my Japanese, I wouldn't have done well," she said. "But because Jack and I had a little subconscious competition going on, and we both wanted to do our best... we were able to succeed."

Most of their classes were language-intensive and tailored to the other students who had more experience with Japanese. With that in mind, Ciancone said, the teachers cut Howard and him some slack.

They also had a few courses taught in English about Japanese culture and literature. Howard said she took a course covering the effect poverty has on children living in third-world countries.

Classes met only once per week - both a blessing and a curse for Ciancone. While he could fit more classes into his schedule, that left more time for him to procrastinate.

He said he was still trying to become accustomed to classes meeting every other day.

"A professor will say, ‘Do this and have it done by Wednesday,' and I'll be thinking, ‘I have a whole week'... and then Wednesday morning, I'm like, ‘Wait a minute, I've got something due."

Living arrangements between the two differed significantly. Howard stayed in a female-only dormitory and had a 9:30 p.m. curfew each night. The sun set at five, she said.

"It surprised me the first night," she said.

Ciancone was provided a fully-furnished apartment that he described only slightly wider than a small coffee shop table. There was no stove; instead, he had to use a hotplate. But he was blessed with a refrigerator and washing machine.

While Howard worked in the aquarium, Ciancone spent some of his free time practicing Kyudo. That form of martial arts, similar to archery, is relatively unknown in the U.S.

"Kyudo is the way of the bow," he said, explaining that it focuses on inner-peace and reflection. "If you can find the target within yourself, you can find the target on the range."

Halpern, the study abroad program director, visited the students in November. Among other things, she said, she went to the aquarium, sat in on their classes and accompanied Ciancone to his Kyudo practices.

"I was just so impressed with how both of our students adjusted to the life in Shimonoseki and at the university," Halpern said. "Folks at the university went out of their way to make sure they had the classes they needed and made sure they were involved in a variety of activities."

Many students study abroad during their sophomore year as a way to complete their general education requirements.

The experiences he had in Japan has inspired Ciancone to see more of the world and revisit some of the countries he's already been, including Taiwan and South Korea.

"Travel broadens your mind - greatly," he said. "I believe when you're traveling and you're actively paying attention to your surroundings and people in the culture, you learn much more abroad than you ever will in a classroom."

Jack Ciancone with Japanese friends and his sensei. Courtesy photo

Chelsea Howard with a friend she made at the aquarium in Shimonoseki, Japan.

Contact: Janis Halpern, study abroad program director, Indiana State University, 812-237-3427 or

Writer: Nick Hedrick, media relations assistant, Indiana State University, Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773 or