Sarah Schalkoff, '23, wearing a traditional Japanese kimono

Sarah Schalkoff, '23

November 30, 2022

Study abroad and a UN internship offer rich intercultural experiences

Intercultural interactions intrigue and, in many ways, define Sarah Schalkoff, ’23. The child of a Japanese mother and an American father, she spent her first 16 years in Yamaguchi, a city on the island of Honshu in southwestern Japan. Her family eventually moved to Kentucky, where she completed her last two years of high school.

“From a very young age, I acted as the translator for my American relatives when they came to visit Yamaguchi,” said Schalkoff, who is fluent in Japanese and English. “It was my role to explain cultural differences to them and my neighbors, many of whom had never seen foreigners before. As I got older, this evolved into my interest in how people from different cultures interact.”

She brought that interest and a determination to master a third language with her to the University of Richmond, she said.

“I chose University of Richmond for its strong study-abroad program and the Jepson School of Leadership Studies as the place I could best examine intercultural communications,” the senior said.

“In Dr. von Rueden’s Leadership and the Social Sciences class, we discussed how your cultural background affects your view of leadership and followership. This class provided an explanation for many of the things I had been feeling but couldn’t articulate.”

Working with the University’s Office of Scholars and Fellowships, Schalkoff applied for and secured a U.S. Department of State critical language scholarship (CLS) to study Bahasa Indonesia, Indonesia’s official language, during summer 2021. Although the pandemic forced the CLS program to move online, she made the best of it, even cooking Indonesian fried rice with her language partner over Zoom.

In spring 2022 after pandemic restrictions eased, the linguaphile enrolled in a study-abroad program in Amman, Jordan. While there, she taught English to teens in one of the country’s Syrian refugee camps, all while learning rudimentary Arabic herself.

“Some students spoke English well, others barely at all,” she said. “The challenge was finding a middle ground where everyone could learn. I created a lot of engagement activities, such as turning the classroom into a mall where students could practice basic or more complex English while ‘shopping.’”

During summer 2022, Schalkoff returned to her native Japan to complete her Jepson internship at the United Nations Information Centre, Tokyo, with funding support from a Burrus Fellowship and a Weinstein grant. She translated and created social media posts and blogs about humanitarian issues.

“I crafted a social media campaign on a topic of my choosing, using the tagline ‘every humanitarian crisis is an education crisis,’” she said. “The first component of my campaign focused on education for children living in crisis conditions. The second component targeted education realities in Japan, including the lack of a strong support program in public schools for children whose first language isn’t Japanese.”

This semester, Schalkoff is studying abroad in Indonesia, a country that is home to 1,300 ethnic groups, six major religions, and more than 700 regional languages.

“It’s incredible to be speaking Bahasa Indonesia in an outdoor market and have people understand me,” she said. “I get excited when I experience intercultural interactions, and every day is an intercultural interaction for everyone who lives in Indonesia.”

Schalkoff said she would love to return to Indonesia following her May graduation, maybe as a Fulbright English teaching assistant.

“I want to promote youth literacy and cross-cultural education in an international context.”

Update: In April, The Jepson School named Schalkoff a 2023 Jepson Scholar, awarding her an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, where she will pursue a Master of Science in Japanese studies.