Rice international students take young adults with special needs on GREAT tour of Japan

GREAT Project 02

Rice University's international students, hailing from diverse corners of the globe, recently took on the role of guides and teachers, bringing a taste of Japan to a special group of Houstonians within the walls of Herring Hall.

“I want this event to be like a traveling experience where they get to feel like they're outside of the U.S. and in Japan for two hours,” said Asahi Obata, a Rice doctoral student who was in charge of the Jan. 20 presentation for the Global RICE Empowers Academics & Training (GREAT) Project.

“The GREAT Project is a project that brings two very unique groups together,” said Adria Baker, the lead of the project, which focuses on education with a country or region as a backdrop. “(It) brings graduate international students and scholars at Rice together to mentor and train young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Asaha Obata, lead volunteer for GREAT Project
Graduate student Asahi Obata was the lead volunteer for the GREAT Project presentation about Japan.

Christi Roberts is one of those young adults. She’s been attending GREAT Project presentations since the first one in 2019, which focused on Brazil.

“The people, their personality …. and learning the Portuguese language,” said Roberts, listing the reasons why that presentation was her favorite.

The event series, covering Brazil, China, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Latin America, India and now Japan, transcends traditional presentations. The staff and volunteers from Rice’s Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) follow a well-established template to curate interactive crafts, games and academic exercises tailored to enhance the participants' experience.

“It is so cool when the international students start learning how to teach things differently. They just radiate,” said Baker. “Of course, the participants are radiating because they get international students to be their mentors and friends.”

“It's so much fun,” said Roberts. “You get to learn like a lot of new countries and I just really enjoy it because the teachers teach us (in a way that’s) easy enough for us to understand without the teachers just talking through it.”

Participants were immersed in a 30-minute introduction to Japan by Obata, the doctoral student, who later divided them into groups at four thematic tables representing the seasons.

“In Japan, we have four seasons and in Japanese culture, we celebrate it a lot,” said Obata, explaining why she chose winter, spring, summer and fall as the topics. “For every season, we eat different types of cuisine, we have different events, we have different things that we usually do for each season.”

The hands-on activities ranged from creating origami cherry blossoms at the spring table to savoring sushi and learning Japanese words at the fall table.

“It's just pure joy,” said Baker.

The GREAT Project's innovative approach garnered recognition in 2023, receiving a Heiskell Award from the Institute of International Education in the category of “Widening Access to International Education.”

“That's given Rice a lot of notoriety for this program,” said Baker. “It's giving other universities the opportunity to replicate what we're doing.”

Looking ahead, Baker and her team of OISS volunteers are already planning the next presentation, set to transport GREAT Project participants to Colombia on Saturday, April 13.

For more details about the program, visit greatproject.blogs.rice.edu/.

Christi Roberts GREAT Project
Christi Roberts has attended GREAT Project presentations since 2019 and says the one focused on Brazil was her favorite.