This coming August, a promising and visionary new international high school in Japan is opening its doors to its inaugural class. Called the International School of Asia, Karuizawa (ISAK), the school was founded by Lin Kobayashi with the mission of creating an educational institution that will foster youth who will become the next generation's global leaders and change makers. Kobayashi has been honored with titles such as "Young Global Leader 2012" by the World Economic Forum and "Changemaker of the Year 2013" by one of Japan's top business magazines. Kobayashi sat down with us to explain what inspired her to found ISAK and what makes this new school so special.
ISAK Summer School: A life-changing program for middle school students from around the world
ISAK Summer School, a program that ISAK runs for 12-14 year olds, will be in its fifth year this summer. Despite a rigorous application process that included essays and interviews, there were nearly 400 applications from 35 different countries in 2013; accepted participants totaled 95 students from 19 different countries.
ISAK's campus is located in Karuizawa, Japan, a mountainous resort town known for its beautiful greenery and nature. Students of diverse nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, religions, and cultures live together in the dormitories, and they take seminar-style classes taught by faculty members recruited from international schools all over the world.
"The students are in charge of operating the cafeteria," Kobayashi says. "They make all the decisions, from how the food is served to the seating arrangements at the tables. Because the students at Summer School come from so many cultures and backgrounds, they also have a diverse set of values and routines that they're used to. Needless to say, things don't always run so smoothly at first; during the first few days, it can take as long as 40 minutes just for everyone's food to be served. But the faculty and staff members don't intervene with their authority as adults and make 'executive decisions.' Instead, aside from facilitating the problem-solving process, they wait patiently and faithfully for the students to figure out a solution together for themselves, by themselves."
Even mealtimes are considered a valuable part of the students' learning. The students form bonds that can only result from spending two dynamic weeks with a richly diverse pool of peers, and they leave the program with their perspectives about the world incredibly altered from when they came.
A school to foster leaders who will make change on a global scale
ISAK's self-stated mission is "to develop transformational leaders who explore new frontiers in service of the greater good of Asia and beyond." Its vision is to educate students who make change and are passionate about taking leadership and action in their own fields. ISAK emphasizes three overarching ideas that the school seeks to develop in students: respect for diversity, skills to effectively identify and solve problems, and the strength to take risks.
Accredited by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), all classes and operations at ISAK will be conducted in English. ISAK's students will graduate with a high school diploma issued by Japan, as well as a diploma from the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which will enable them to continue their education in universities around the world. (ISAK is currently approved as a candidate school to offer the IB curriculum and is scheduled for full approval after the school opens.)
Creating and sustaining an environment where all of the students live together and study one of the world's most rigorous academic curricula - all in the beautiful natural surroundings of Karuizawa - means tuition, boarding and other fees won't be cheap. But ISAK is aiming to offer scholarships or financial aid to 50 percent of the students in its inaugural class; scholarships and financial aid are partially funded by the support ISAK receives from major corporations, but most of it is made possible by donations from the individuals who support the school's mission and vision.
Taking small steps toward a big dream
After working in the business world at Morgan Stanley and then at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), now part of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Kobayashi earned her MA in International Educational Policy Analysis at Stanford. She then started her career at UNICEF.
Through her work as a Program Officer, Kobayashi was directly involved in non-formal education programs for street children in the Philippines. Over time, she came to believe that while it is important to educate the poor, the education of future leaders also had to change.
This inspired Kobayashi to return to Japan in 2008 to fully dedicate her time to start a school for tomorrow's future change makers. Just as she was starting to gain ground, the great recession tanked the world's economy, and raising any money for the project became close to impossible. But this didn't stop Kobayashi.
"I won't lie, 2008 and 2009 were really tough," she laughs. My friend, who saw me struggling, then said to me, 'Rather than being so ambitious and dealing with a multimillion-dollar project from the start, why don't you try starting smaller and doing what you can with what you have right now?' My friend's advice led to the creation of the Summer School program that would be the starting point for the ideal curriculum at the high school."
"I feel like I am an entirely different person from who I was before I came"
When it comes to Summer School, Kobayashi says that more than anything, she is overjoyed to see the students' growth that happens before her eyes.
"At the first Summer School, there was a student who attended an American school, and he was quite reserved. But according to his mother, he came home from two weeks at Summer School with a newfound confidence and said to her, 'I learned that there are many different styles of leadership. I can get along and collaborate with people who have different backgrounds and values, and I realized I can use that skill to be a leader in my own way.' She was astounded and very moved."
At the following year's Summer School, there was a student from Burma who, during a presentation, spoke about his dreams: "I will dedicate my life to the peaceful democratization of my country."
The following spring, he was visited by his Japanese Summer School classmate. His visit coincided with Aung San Suu Kyi's election to the Burmese parliament, and after he witnessed this turning point in his friend's country, the Japanese student started talking about his new dream: to be directly involved in the construction industry in Burma as Asia develops and gathers the world's attention in the near future.
What these students learn from living and learning with their diverse classmates is not knowledge that they can gain from studying textbooks. From the two fruitful weeks of Summer School, it is evident that spending three years in this environment at ISAK holds a lot of promise.
The expansion of ISAK after the 2011 disaster
"About two to three years after I started working on creating ISAK, many more people started to support the project, not just because they saw how passionate I was about it, but because they truly supported the mission and vision of ISAK. They themselves wanted to make a difference in society and the world of education through taking part in ISAK."
As Kobayashi says, ISAK became more and more well-known through word of mouth, especially through the parents of the students who participated in the Summer School program. These parents were so moved by the growth they saw in their children after Summer School that they started to make individual donations to ISAK themselves, and ISAK's mission and vision gradually resonated with more and more people.
Initially, Kobayashi and the team at ISAK traveled to schools across the globe to recruit top teachers, but thanks to word of mouth in the teaching community, in recent years teachers themselves from all over the world have sought to apply to ISAK. Roderick Jemison, who will be the first Head of School at ISAK, was invited and appointed from his position as the head of a prestigious private school in San Diego. He moved with his family to Japan last year and is currently preparing with the team for the opening of the school in several months.
The success of Summer School led to further successes and progress for ISAK, but Kobayashi claims that one of the biggest turning points was the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that happened in Japan in March of 2011, as a result of which tens of thousands have been reported dead or missing to this date.
"The tides really changed after that tragedy. It was like a wake-up call to many of the nation's parents; in the face of an uncertain and unpredictable future, perhaps many parents felt that their children need the strength to thrive and stand on their feet, not just in Japan, but anywhere in the world. The disaster also clarified the need for leaders who will make change for the betterment of society, not for their own selfish agendas or gains, and that really pushed things forward at ISAK."
"Optimism comes from the will"
Kobayashi has dedicated, and continues to dedicate, her whole-hearted passion and her life's worth of experiences and networks to ISAK. Her flexibility and strength are a key driving force for the entire team and project. She extends her appreciation to the people who have supported her:
"My former colleagues now work in different countries, and they have been helping us recruit students from around the world. The people who really helped me out in my twenties are now helping me out again," she laughs. And these past five years, I worked with basically no income, so I couldn't have gotten here without my husband's full support. I am so thankful."
"Throughout this whole process, I have come to appreciate one phrase from the French philosopher Alain: 'Pessimism comes from our feelings; optimism from the will.' Taking on new challenges is inherently a risk. Feeling doubtful, unsure, and negative in the face of these challenges stems from our emotions. But our determination and will to take action is what enables us to be optimistic about the future."
Kobayashi has strong wishes for the next generation: "Faced with the same situation, one person may see it as a chance or an opportunity, while another may see it as a risk. But I want our youth to learn that no one is responsible for their future - not the people around them, not society at large - but themselves. I want them to realize this responsibility as they live their lives so they have a future that they can be optimistic about."
"It is said that in the very near future, half of the world's population and GDP will come from Asia. It is all the more important than ever before for our world's leaders to understand, accept, and be able to collaborate with others who have different sets of values and beliefs, and to incorporate these skills into their leadership."
ISAK challenges students across the globe in their promotional video: "Are you ready to change the world?" Under the leadership of Kobayashi, ISAK's future is bright as it promises to foster the next generation's leaders who will transform the future, globalized world.