The MEXT scholarship is probably among the first things that come to mind when we think about scholarships for studying in Japan. (Haven’t heard of it? Check out this link!
In this article, I will skip the basic information about the scholarship, the application process, and the tips and tricks for a successful application. Instead, I will deep dive into the life of current MEXT scholarship recipients, take a look into what they are doing, their experience studying in Japan, and what they think of this scholarship.
This time, I am meeting Pitchapon Jirawongsapan, a MEXT scholar from Thailand. He is currently a third-year student, studying Civil Engineering at the University of Tokyo. Pitchapon is not merely a great student, he is also crushing it out of the classroom as the chairman of the Thai Students’ Association in Japan. Having excelled in high school, he chose to follow his interests in Japanese culture by becoming a MEXT scholar. Let’s hear his story.
When and how did your interests in Japan begin?
For as long as I can remember, my family have always loved spending our vacations in Japan. We visited Japan a couple of times each year. Actually, I wasn’t that determined about studying abroad in Japan. Some people might have dreamed about getting into the University of Tokyo, but I didn’t really think about it much until my senior year in high school.
When I was a high school freshman, I realized that I am interested in physics, particularly in mechanics. However, I didn’t really want to become a researcher because I think it is too theoretical. I started considering applied physics such as engineering since it will allow me to try doing new things in practical ways. As I continued to junior and senior year, I became aware of various issues in Thailand, and I believe that one of the keys to solving them is to develop an efficient transportation system in place of the existing one, which is still lacking.
I wholeheartedly agree.
To be specific, I think the rail infrastructure should be developed further. When I discussed with my high school teachers about where to pursue my higher education, most of them said that I should either aim for Germany or Japan. Also, I have been learning Japanese since I was in the 4th grade in primary school. It only makes sense to choose Japan, which is geographically and culturally closer to Thailand.
I heard the competition for MEXT scholarship in Thailand is really high. When did you decide to go for it?
For Thai students, MEXT is typically always on the list, so when I decided to aim for Japan it was just natural for me to apply for MEXT.
It seems like you were thinking about studying abroad at the very beginning.
That’s right, but I wouldn’t say that I was obsessed about it. I had other things in life with higher priorities at the time. I was still participating in the International Science Olympiad, so I did not really dedicate much time for the MEXT examination. I took some extra classes in Chemistry, but they weren’t very helpful – obviously, I think I’m hopeless at Chemistry. (lol)
I heard a lot of students took exam prep very seriously. They spend hours after hours at cram schools and practice really hard just to prepare for this specific scholarship.
Well, I actually took some a free English exam prep class for MEXT at a cram school, but it didn’t really help that much. The English part of MEXT’s exam isn’t usually that hard, to begin with. To prep for that part, just practising with the question samples to get used to the test format should be enough.
How do you feel, now that you’re studying in Japan as a MEXT scholar? Is there anything that’s different from what you expected?
Saying that it’s different might not be correct. Actually, this is much more than what I have expected. I didn’t really expect much. There was no culture shock because I have been to Japan multiple times for my family’s vacation. By coming here, I have received so many opportunities to do and learn various different things. Having been studying at UTokyo for three years, I realized that a great university isn’t necessarily the one that has the highest number of researches or the best professors; what’s really important is that it allows the students to explore their interests and support them in doing so. At UTokyo, students are encouraged to apply for exchange programs abroad with scholarship support from the university itself. This might be just one of the minor details, but I think this is very important. I have also received this kind of opportunities from UTokyo, and that greatly helped broaden my perspectives.
Are there also research fellowships for students?
Of course, there are! However, I haven’t participated in any of those. The program that I have been actively participating is actually the summer exchange program. Last summer, I went to Peking University to learn about international relations and the rise of China, and also the Belt and Road Initiative.
Your major is Civil Engineering, but you seem to be learning about a diverse set of subjects! Is the curriculum quite interdisciplinary?
I would say it is extremely interdisciplinary. Among the subjects I took, there are very few “pure” Engineering classes. Most of the classes even lean toward social science. In Thailand, people might assume that Civil Engineering students should learn how to perfectly make bridges, roads, and other infrastructures. However, students here at UTokyo are encouraged to think more deeply. For example, if I suggested building a road to solve some problem in a city, the professors would care less about the type of soil I would use, and more about why I think building a road would solve that problem.
Questions to follow that would be like: is building a road the best choice out there?; can we try other options? I think we need to be able to answer this kind of questions, because every public infrastructure project costs money, and that money comes from taxpayer’s hard work. To think about these critical issues, therefore, we need to take an interdisciplinary approach to it. Also, it’s exactly when the word “why” become the centre of the discussion that other crucial concepts like sustainability can be naturally integrated into the practice.
We’ve discussed a lot about what you learned in class, but you also seem to be doing a lot of extracurriculars as well. Can you tell me more about that?
This year, I’ve dedicated most of my time for TSAJ (Thai Students’ Association in Japan). Apart from that, I mostly try to pursue my interests in development and public policy through internships. I was working for JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) during the summer of my sophomore year. I was based in Bangkok, and there were various projects, including the railway development project and preparations for the ageing society, going on at the time. That was the time when I became interested in the public healthcare system.
You seem to have interests in many different fields. What’s your plan for the future?
In the long run, I want to create changes on a larger scale and to work on developments of the country in general, not limited to civil engineering. I’m interested in public health, transportation infrastructure, and development economics, and it would be great to contribute to the betterment of the country in these areas.
Do you have any recommendations or anything you want to tell anyone who wants to become a MEXT scholar?
Most of the students that apply for MEXT scholarships, especially in Thailand, are those who want to study, but there are some who applied just because they are fans of some anime or manga. That is totally fine, however, I would recommend keeping your expectation to a reasonable level. Otherwise, you might be disappointed when life in Japan turns out to be different from the ideals that you have imagined. I think it is more important to set the goals for what you want to get out of these five years, what you want to learn. Actually, I promise that you will learn even more things than you have imagined, and it will stay with you for the rest of your life. You’ll learn a lot from interacting with people from different backgrounds and cultures. At first, it might scare you or make you feel uncomfortable, but after a while, you will gain skills related to cultural sensitivity that will be very helpful in the future.
The next point is about the style classes are conducted. Although it is good that the system is quite similar to that of Thailand, the downside is that there is still lots of norms that stifle creativity, like most of the education systems in Asia. If you’re the type of person who wants to learn deeply and intensely about theories, this will suit you very well. This is actually very important to know because the style of teaching can really make a difference, even though the curriculum is almost identical. I really want people to ask themselves whether they would enjoy the Japanese way of teaching before they apply for MEXT scholarships.
Do you feel like you have changed through these years in Japan?
Honestly, I think I have grown up a lot. I sometimes wonder what made that happen in such a short period of time, and I realized that it is because I had the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people. Most importantly, however, is that I had the opportunity to reflect on my own, and get to know myself better. In Thailand, the society was so tightly knitted that I was always surrounded by my best friends, which was great. However, it also means that I did not have time to reflect on things on my own. Sometimes, a moment alone can really help me see things more clearly and see the connections among things that might not be obviously connected. Before I came to Japan, I also tended to be simplistic and saw things as black and white, but now, I think I can see the nuances and interconnectedness of different issues much better. I also became much more humble, because now I see that there are many things that I still don’t know.
Seems like you have experienced many different things here. Are there moments when you started to regret your decision to come to Japan?
Yes, actually, many times. Sometimes, it can get really lonely living far away from home. The last time I went back to Thailand, I visited a university in Bangkok, where my friends are enrolled. At that moment, I wondered how it would turn out if I decided to go to that university instead. When I attended an HCAP event at Harvard University, I was impressed by their campus culture, and I thought that maybe I would have liked American colleges better. So, yes, there are moments like that where I doubted my choices.
However, when I actually think about it, I think it is better to examine my goals and decided on how best to achieve them. I realized that the US would not be ideal for me since my interests are mainly about civil engineering, especially rail infrastructure, which is not that widespread in the US. Also, I would not have an opportunity to reflect things on my own become as mature as I am now if I chose to stay in Thailand. The skills that I have gained through these experiences in Japan are really valuable to me, and at the end of the day, I don’t regret making that decision.
This is the first story of Humans of MEXT, a series of interviews that will deep dive into the story that each MEXT scholar has to tell about their experience in Japan.
If you enjoyed the story, or have any comments, please let me know through firstname.lastname@example.org Stay tuned for the next article!