Her words are spoken softly, but they reveal an ambitious plan.
Mary Baldwin University senior Roxanne Russell received a coveted Fulbright Scholarship to study for a full year in Japan, beginning in September 2005. She will examine the role and influence of Japanese media and popular culture outlets on shaping public attitudes toward suicide. She will have the opportunity to delve deeper into the research she started for her undergraduate thesis in Asian Studies. She will read newspapers, watch television, explore the Internet, listen to music, and look at government suicide prevention policies. All this while she is 7,000 miles from her Charlottesville, Virginia home.
“I wanted to look at media and popular culture influences when I started formulating my project at Mary Baldwin, but I realized I would need to wait, as this kind of research is best conducted while living in Japan,” said Russell, an 18-year-old student in the college’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG).
Russell’s unique research proposal and a command of the Japanese language that defies her young age are among the reasons she earned the highly regarded Fulbright award. The stipend covers her travel, living expenses, and education – allowing her to pursue causes and remedies for Japan’s growing mental health crisis.
Since it was established in 1946, the Fulbright program has awarded more than 255,000 grants in an effort to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of human beings, knowledge, and skills. About 96,500 Fulbright award recipients are from the U.S., and 158,500 are from foreign countries. Fulbright alumni include Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, governors and senators, ambassadors and artists, Supreme Court Justices, and CEOs.
Russell’s unassuming demeanor and gentle voice have probably helped her quest to master Japanese language and customs. Much is communicated in spoken Japanese by tone of voice and accompanying gestures. An early lesson in Japanese language would likely include speaking traditional greetings and the bowing that goes with them, she explained.
Her unwavering passion for the country and its language – spoken and written – doesn’t hurt, either.
Daniel Métraux, professor of Asian Studies, remembers Russell’s intense interest in Japan from their first meeting when she was a young teenager applying for admission to Mary Baldwin. “She is the best Japanese language student I’ve had in 21 years,” he said. “Her award is a testament to her hard work, ability, and interest, as to the success of international study, PEG, and Asian Studies.”
Russell is a comfortable world traveler. She spent two semesters in Japan as an undergraduate student; during one of which she was a student at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, Mary Baldwin University’s sister school in Kyoto. Trips with her family have also taken her to Switzerland, Australia, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. “I am lucky to have resourceful parents who, despite frequent financial sacrifice, have not imposed barriers on our educational pursuits,” she said.
Russell traces her affinity for Japan to a childhood attraction to drawing and language. “My interest ?centered on my fascination with the Japanese language itself – the sound of the spoken word, the shape of the exotic characters – and the distinctive artistry and storytelling of Japanese manga, which are similar to American comic books,” she wrote in her application essay for the Fulbright competition. In her proposal, she recommended taking a studio art class in manga design and production at a Japanese university. Russell also plans to take a course in mass communication that focuses on Japanese news media and the Internet, and a class in psychology or cultural anthropology to study mental health issues.
“I started watching Japanese cartoons and looking at manga books before I even understood the language,” Russell said. By age 13, she was enrolled in a Japanese language course for adult learners, and she sought out the language and art forms wherever she could, particularly at the library. She earned distinction in her major at Mary Baldwin, was named the outstanding Asian Studies student of the year as a senior, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa – all as an 18-year-old.
Russell will write a research paper to present her findings, but the aspect of the project she is most looking forward to is offering a creative campaign to combat suicide that includes a pamphlet or poster illustrated with manga art. She plans to create a storyboard, solicit a professional mentor to publish the piece, and offer it for distribution through official channels in Japan.
“Studying abroad has made me calmer, I think,” Russell says. “I’ve learned to deal with a lot of unusual situations with confidence. I probably wouldn’t be going back to Japan so soon without the Fulbright, and that is where I feel like I need to be right now.”