By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Erika Tsuji was understandably nervous when she came to the United States in May 2019.
It’s always difficult to leave your family and friends, and the transition was even more challenging since her English skills were very limited at that time.
Tsuji didn’t know what to expect at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, a school she selected sight unseen.
“Before coming here, I had never heard of Nebraska, actually,” she said with a laugh. “I had no idea.”
Originally from Nagoya, Japan, a city with more than 2 million residents, Tsuji spent time in the Philippines as an exchange student during high school. That experience inspired her to attend college in the U.S.
She chose UNK because of its low tuition rates and aviation program – the career she was initially interested in.
“In Japan, it’s really hard for women to become pilots,” Tsuji explained. “There are more women pilots in the U.S., so this was the ideal place to be.”
She learned very quickly that there are other significant differences between Kearney and her hometown, starting with the weather.
Located in southeastern Japan, Nagoya has a humid subtropical climate with hot, muggy summers and cool winters that seldom bring snowfall.
“I love the summer here because it’s very dry, but in the winter it’s very cold and there’s snow falling in October and March,” Tsuji said. “My hometown is not very snowy. I really enjoyed it the first time, because it’s very beautiful, but I don’t want to go outside.
“There are some people here who don’t put on a jacket in the winter. I wear a big, heavy coat. It’s totally different.”
With a population around 34,000, Kearney’s size also stood out.
“To be honest, it was really small,” Tsuji said. “I was surprised that it takes like three hours to drive to a big city like Omaha or Lincoln. I couldn’t believe that.”
That close-knit community is actually one of UNK’s biggest selling points.
Tsuji immediately felt welcomed and accepted on campus and around town, erasing any fears she had about fitting in.
Although she was unfamiliar with Greek Life – fraternities and sororities don’t exist on college campuses in Japan – Tsuji decided to join Alpha Xi Delta at UNK. That led to leadership and community service opportunities and allowed her to create lasting friendships with fellow Lopers.
“I feel like I’m part of a second family,” she said of the sorority.
Tsuji is also part of the UNK Wind Ensemble and Kearney Symphony Orchestra, showcasing her skills as a clarinetist, and she works at Starbucks inside the student union.
“Before I started working at Starbucks, I had no idea about Americano, latte, espresso, anything. But I really enjoy working there now,” she said. “I love my co-workers and the customers. It’s fun talking to all the different people every day.”
Along with all the new experiences, Tsuji still gets to be part of something familiar. She’s a member of the Japanese Association at Kearney (JAK), a student organization that hosts the Japanese Festival each year. This event gives students a chance to showcase their culture by sharing Japanese food and performances with attendees.
Tsuji has performed at the Japanese Festival and the annual International Food and Cultural Festival on campus. She also won the Fame Talent Show hosted by Loper Programming and Activities Council while performing with other JAK members.
Now a senior studying accounting with a minor in media production, Tsuji definitely isn’t the same person she was four years ago.
“Coming here allowed me to see things from many perspectives,” she said. “I think studying abroad makes you more confident and improves your self-esteem. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and I was more shy before, but now I have more confidence and I can challenge myself.”
She proved that last summer when she completed an internship with accounting giant KPMG in Chicago.
“I was nervous because I didn’t have any friends there, so I had to live by myself, but it was a really great experience,” she said. “It was very different working there, so I gained a lot of skills.”
Tsuji will graduate from UNK in December, then she plans to return to Japan to begin her accounting career. Eventually, she’d like to live in the U.S. again.
“Hopefully I can come back,” she said. “I really enjoyed my time here.”
PHOTOS BY ERIKA PRITCHARD, UNK COMMUNICATIONS