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Top>Opinion>Social Contribution by Universities: Observing Student Volunteer Activities


Mitsuru Yamashina

Mitsuru Yamashina [profile]

Social Contribution by Universities:
Observing Student Volunteer Activities

Mitsuru Yamashina
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Clinical Psychology

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1. Social contribution as the third role

The social contribution of a university: most university professors seeing this phrase are likely to think, “Why mention that now, when that has been among our goals all along?” The results of education and research are ultimately given back to society, and by properly fulfilling this role, universities can be said to have been contributing to society since long ago. However, the Central Council for Education, a consultative body for the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), published a report entitled Grand Design for Japanese Higher Education in January 2005, in which the roles of universities in society were clearly defined with social contribution as the third mission after education and research. By positioning social contribution itself as the third role of universities, this signifies that we are now living in times of strong demand for universities themselves to be more actively involved with society than before and to share responsibility for social formation.

In addition, in June 2012, MEXT published a report entitled Execution Plan for University Reform, which announced a policy of enhancing universities’ Center of Community (COC) functions. Pointed out as part of the background to this is the issue that universities do not engage in collaborations with their local areas as institutional units, although individual professors may have links with local areas. Universities today are being asked to engage in problem-solving of regional issues with an awareness of making social contributions as institutions.

Despite the fact that this sort of external demand is increasing, I myself must also admit to, until quite recently, being a professor with only a very conventional concept of social contribution. In the following article, I would like to refer to the example of the assistance provided to areas affected by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami disaster, and look back over and reflect on the areas for improvement in my own activities, while discussing how universities should conduct social contribution.

2. Engaging with disaster-affected areas

On February 8 of this year, I left snow-covered Tokyo for Iwate Prefecture by Shinkansen bullet train. My purpose was a stay of 4 days and 3 nights at Kuji City and Noda Village. This would be my 30th visit since I first began visiting in March 2011. Immediately after the disaster, my purpose had been to assist at a psychological hospital where an old psychiatrist friend worked as director. However, soon after my arrival and at the will of my friend the hospital director, I instead prioritized activities in Noda Village, which had suffered immense damage in the disaster, and my work was to do the rounds in this village where the marks of the damage wreaked still remained very raw.[1]

At the refuge I worked at, I mainly tried to conduct interviews with people who had lost family members or those who had a psychiatric disorder that meant they required intensive psychological support. However, from the beginning, very few people would open their hearts to an outsider. As someone who originates from the Tohoku region myself, this was something that I had anticipated. In addition, I also believed that the timing when people really require the support of a psychiatrist is after the initial confusion has calmed down somewhat. Therefore, I decided to first participate in the role of a doctor of internal medicine, and by repeatedly measuring the blood pressure of everyone there, tried to have them remember my face.

3. Dilemma for treatment of PTSD

One of the people I met during one of my early patrols and with whom I remain in contact now is a woman past middle age who, six months after the disaster, she first began talking repeatedly and in minute detail about the scene of the moment when she escaped by a hair’s breadth from a tsunami that was rushing toward her by climbing up a cliff. Another elderly couple finally started telling me about their experience of the tsunami in the second winter after it happened, and told me about how they often are woken by nightmares where they are about to be engulfed by an approaching black tsunami wave.

These detailed sensual recollections that flash into one’s mind are a phenomenon called flashback and are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not just me but all psychiatrists were aware of PTSD in the wake of disasters before going to the disaster-affected areas, and believed that treating such flashback symptoms was our very role. However, concerning the people affected by the disaster that I met, while many of them showed signes of PTSD, only 2 or 3 of them have received treatment in 3 years. Most people who were evacuated seem to have shared a common sense of both wanting someone to listen to their painful recollections, but at the same time, not wanting these to be made the target of treatment.

4. To remember and listen

The people affected by the disaster that I met at first all welcomed me with graciousness. However, one day, two whole years after the disaster, the lady past middle age I mentioned before, suddenly cut short her moderate recollection of the situation at the time and started saying “I’ll tell you about this now, since it’s all so long ago…I invited my friends and we ran away from the refuge so I wouldn’t have to meet you on the day when we had been told that you would come. Even so, you always kept your promise and kept coming back…” She said that was why she had decided to talk to me. Other people had come visiting from the outside to offer support apart from me, but “There is no way I would talk about my feelings to someone who comes from the outside and is going to disappear again in the next moment. So I just told them all something that would please them, and sent them off home.” She was telling me this as if recollecting a funny story, but for me it was like having my own presumptions pointed out to me, and secretly it made me break into a cold sweat.

Also, at first, no one would mention the struggle of having to hang around in temporary housing. After a year or two years passed, gradually the cramped conditions and the lack of soundproofing began to appear as topics of conversation. Then, at the end of this sort of conversation, many people started to proffer that they would like me to come again. And, as if in one voice, they would then add, “We don’t want you to forget us.” What the people affected by the disaster wanted was for me not to forget them, to remain interested in them, to show this in a way that they could see for themselves, by continuing to visit them and listen to them.

5. Support by non-experts - activities of volunteer students

I was a lone volunteer. I am in a relatively free position of not belonging to a medical institution as a doctor and because of this, I was aware that there was a role I could play, by maintaining a continuous relationship with specific targets for support in a narrow region. (I also provided support to people conducting specialist work such as hospital directors and nurses, but I will not discuss that here.) As a university professor, I could also have led a group of students to the disaster-affected areas. But while I could think of the benefits of showing the disaster-affected area to the students, it did not even occur to me to use them to conduct emotional and psychological support activities. I believed that without specialist skills and knowledge, it would be hard for them to offer emotional and psychological support.

Two things overturned my thinking on this: one was the words of a person affected by the disaster and the other was a report of their volunteer activities in disaster-affected areas by students of Chuo University. At first, the volunteer activities of Chuo University students after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami disaster were mainly based on the requests and support of former-student or in response to recruiting by sections in administrative organizations such as the Student Affairs Office or the Teaching Staff Office. In Kesennuma City and Miyako City, the students autonomously turned this into providing learning support for children, albeit with the support of the Student Affairs Office. And a newly formed group began making the rounds of temporary housing in Soma City, with a motto of allowing No Deaths from Solitude to occur. As of the summer of 2013, the Volunteer Station within the Student Affairs Office was aware of the activities of 5 main groups and was providing them with material and emotional back-up.[2]

At present, the key members of these activities are now gradually shifting to 1st- and 2nd-year students: that is, students who entered the university after the disaster had occurred. Most of the students who set off for the disaster-affected areas in the immediate aftermath have now graduated, or are unable to visit these areas now due to job-hunting. But these activities have not been transient and ended with the parting of these students and they have established a system of passing these activities on to the students that follow them. Of course, as time passes, the goals of activities in the disaster-affected areas change, and I hear that the students’ activities are just about to turn another corner. However, more than anything, it is gratifying to see how they are continuing these activities.

If the basic element of offering emotional and psychological support to people affected by the disaster is to continue to show in a way they can see for themselves that we have not forgotten them, then the above-mentioned student activities constitute sufficient support. The anxiety of people affected by the disaster is caused by the reality that the interest of society is waning with the passage of time. The support activities of these students offer a firm response to this anxiety. I clearly underestimated the potential of students to offer support and I misjudged the needs of people affected by the disaster.

6. Social contribution by universities as a system

With the exception of a small minority, even the smallest of universities gather together people in their 1000s. As a general university, Chuo University has some 30,000 teaching staff and students with a broad age composition and from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, various knowledge, material, and human resources have accumulated here from our long history and traditions. In addition, the primary component of a university – its students – change and are replaced each year. Even though the students change and are replaced, sport, and other various student activities are conducted continuously. This is a major characteristic of a university, which distinguishes it from other institutions.

One area of social contribution in which this characteristic has been vividly demonstrated is in the continuous student volunteer activities in disaster-affected areas mentioned above. As volunteer activities, the activities of students are necessarily voluntary and unforced, and it would be inappropriate for everything to be arranged or incited from above by teaching staff. However, just as the disaster-affected area support began as response to requests from former-students and the University administration and developed into autonomous activities by students, it may also at times be necessary for experienced teaching staff to prime the ground and contrive ways of unleashing the potential dynamism of students. I believe that it is the responsibility of teaching staff to watch over the purposeful and capable activities of students and help them develop further.

In addition, these student activities also may link back to students’ main fields of study in their lectures and seminars, etc. There are already numerous professors at Chuo University who, by setting education or research topics from a sociological perspective or from an environmental engineering perspective and sending students to the disaster-affected areas to provide an opportunity for learning, in effect are creating opportunities for interaction and exchange with people affected by the disaster (in other words, for emotional and psychological support in its broader sense).[3] When the sentiments or desires of students and the knowledge of teaching staff match local needs well, we can expect the social contribution activities of universities to organically link with education and research activities and be more effective.

7. Conclusion

There are also many issues relating to sending volunteer students out into regional society. Regional society will probably request universities to send students to participate in various activities in the future, but the educational significance of each request must be identified individually and cautiously. In addition, it is essential to establish a diverse back-up system, including the construction of a university crisis management regime, etc., to ensure the safety of students who go out to these local areas. If universities are to contribute funding for these activities from each university’s accounts, we also need to obtain broad understanding from the parents of students, who will ultimately pay for this in tuition fees. More than anything, without creating a climate of the teaching staff as a whole supporting these student activities, we cannot expect them to develop further.

While these sorts of issues remain, I believe that the most appropriate form of social contribution by a university as an institution is one led by the autonomous volunteer activities of its students. I hope that this view can gain the understanding of the related parties.

  1. ^ Mitsuru Yamashina, “Bonds of Psychiatric Healthcare in the Northern Coastal Area of Iwate Prefecture as seen by a Volunteer Doctor: View from Activities in Noda Village [Boranteia-i ga Mita Iwate Kenhoku-engan-chiiki ni okeru Seishinhoken no Kizuna – Nodamura deno Katsudo wo Toshite],” Seishin-iryou Vol. 64, 122-131, 2011.
  2. ^ HAKUMON Chuo Summer 2013 Edn, Introducing 5 Student Groups Assisting Disaster-affected Areas [Hisaichi Shien Gakusei Dantai 5 Dantai no Shokai]new window
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Mitsuru Yamashina
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Clinical Psychology
Born in 1961 in Aomori Prefecture. Graduated from the School of Medicine, Niigata University in 1989.
Appointed to current position in 2010, after serving as Clinical Fellow at Tokyo Metropolitan Matsuzawa Hospital, Assistant and Lecturer at of the Faculty of Medicine, Juntendo University, and Professor at Faculty of Human Sciences, Bunkyo University.
Doctor of Medicine (Juntendo University); specialist in psychiatry and clinical psychotherapist
Areas of specialization are juvenile psychiatry and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Engaging in clinical research with an aim of acting as a bridge between psychological education and the clinical workplace.
His main published works include The Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration (Part 2) [Seishinbunsekiteki Hatatsuron no Togo 2] (Co-translated) and How to Conduct a Psychoanalytic Interview [Seishinbunsekiteki Shindanmensetsu no Susumekata] (Co-authored), among others.
Since 2013, he has been serving as a coordinating member of a Working Group for the Chuo University Social Contribution & Social Collaboration Promotion Committee.