Mount Holyoke offers both a strong liberal arts program and a supportive home for international students

“I feel like I have sisters all over the place. There are strong connections at Mount Holyoke. … I was impressed with how helpful people are here.”

The idea for Tokyo native Azuna Sawada to study at Mount Holyoke came about by chance. When she was in high school and starting to think about her plans for college, she met a woman who had also attended her high school and studied at Smith College. The person couldn’t stop raving about the school and the American education system. She made American college life sound so exciting. And so a light bulb went off in Sawada’s head: Perhaps she ought to consider studying abroad for college too.

She started researching American colleges that had a strong liberal arts foundation and were also known for taking care of international students. Knowing she wanted to pursue a STEM major, Sawada was intrigued by Mount Holyoke’s strong science programs. When she was offered admission and received a generous financial aid package, the decision was clear.

In hindsight, though, what seemed like a chance idea was actually the best idea — because in traveling thousands of miles away from home to attend Mount Holyoke, Sawada not only discovered new ways of thinking but also found a new kind of home.

“I feel like I have sisters all over the place,” said Sawada, who, before arriving on campus, hadn’t considered the benefits of coming to a women’s college that is gender diverse. “There are strong connections at Mount Holyoke. … I was impressed with how helpful people are here.”

“So, for example, when the campus [sent students away] because of COVID-19 in 2020, the alums made a spreadsheet of what they could offer to current students,” Sawada said. “And then some of them drove me to the airport and some of them gave me storage space. They actually helped us. I also visited some of the alums over the Thanksgiving break.”

”When I am at the Equestrian Center, I don’t worry about my assignments and just enjoy riding.”

Sawada also found a home on Mount Holyoke’s equestrian team, she said. She joined the team her first semester at Mount Holyoke — tryouts for the team were, in fact, the first time Sawada had ever sat on a horse. “Everyone was so helpful, and no one disregarded me even though I was brand new to riding,” she said.

Because she was a complete novice, Sawada wasn’t thinking about formally joining the team, but she eventually took the plunge and joined. And she quickly realized the benefits.

“When I came to Mount Holyoke, I didn’t have any family nearby, so having a group that I could always come back to helped me a lot mentally,” she said. “Without riding, I don’t think I could have survived the semester. When I am at the Equestrian Center, I don’t worry about my assignments and just enjoy riding.”

And Sawada is serious about her studies. When she discovered neuroscience at Mount Holyoke, it seemed to encapsulate everything she thought she was interested in — human behavior, motivation and biology. But she soon realized there was even more to learn.

“In terms of academics, I really loved all the neuroscience classes and seminars,” Sawada said. “They were all so interesting to me. But what affected me most was always taking one outside-of-my-major class, like anthropology or religion. Those classes actually gave me new perspectives.”

The class Sawada took on religion and disability with Susanne Mrozik especially made an impression on her, she said. Sawada had never before considered how different religions understand disability, but it was more than the course topic that captured her imagination. “The class discussion style was just so inclusive to everyone, literally everyone,” Sawada said.

When it came to class discussions, everyone had time to dissect what their peers said and then come up with their own opinions, she said. Since no one was rushed, the conversations were always thoughtful. The care taken and manner in which Mrozik administered the discussion was just what Sawada needed.

“It helped me as an international student a lot because English is not my first language, and I have to build up what to say,” she said. “So her discussion style helped me and taught me how to enjoy the discussion and then encouraged me to speak up in the class.”

Studying abroad was also a chance for Sawada to come out of her shell and take her studies even further. She spent the spring semester of 2022 in Kenya studying Swahili, research methods and ethics, epidemiology, and comparative health care systems — and visiting Rwanda and Uganda to compare their health care systems. Given her strong interest in mental health, for her independent study Sawada conducted surveys and visited communities and homes to assess how mental health literacy impacted the stigmatizing attitudes people have around mental health disorders.

Studying abroad helped Sawada crystallize ideas of how she’d like to orient her future. She recently applied for several master’s degree programs in public health and hopes to stay in the United States to continue her studies.

And when it comes to reflecting on how Mount Holyoke has helped lead her in that direction, one experience in particular sums it up for Sawada. She was the only international student in her study abroad program. She didn’t feel explicitly isolated, she said, but at times there were some pangs of loneliness. She later relayed the experience to a friend who’s an international student at a different college — and her friend’s reaction opened Sawada’s eyes to how comfortable she had been at Mount Holyoke.

“She asked me, ‘Oh, you’ve never experienced that kind of feeling? When you’re at Mount Holyoke, you’re still a minority. If you go back to Mount Holyoke, you are an international student.’ I actually never realized that I’m actually an international student at Mount Holyoke,” Sawada said in respect to feeling like a minority. “I think it’s because the College tries so hard to make the community inclusive for everyone.”

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Christian Feuerstein
  • Director of Public Affairs and Media Relations