Breaking Barriers: Japanese DSU student overcomes language and cultural challenges to earn agriculture degree
Yuuka Taniguchi's experience as a foreign exchange student shapes her passion for agriculture and interests in strengthening global trade connections
DICKINSON — As soon as Yuuka Taniguchi stepped off the plane in North Dakota, she knew she was in for the adventure of a lifetime, but little did she know that her entire paradigm would shift courtesy of her experiences in a small community of a little more than 650 people. Coming from a small town on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Yuuka was used to living in a tight-knit community surrounded by farmland, but the agricultural practices she observed in North Dakota were completely different than what she was used to and fascinating to the teenage Japanese exchange student.
Taniguchi arrived in 2016 her junior year. She attended New England High School alongside another foreign exchange student named Tamar Antia from the eastern European country of Georgia. Together they lived with their host family, Eric and Naomi Wood. Yuuka said she and Antia went to New England because Dickinson wasn’t accepting foreign exchange students that year. After finishing up her junior year she returned to Japan to finish high school.
Longing for the experiences and rolling prairies of southwest North Dakota, she returned in 2018 to begin her study of Agriculture at Dickinson State University.
Naomi said she's very impressed with what both of her exchange students have gone on to do, noting that Tamar is now a microbiologist back in her home country. Between 2014 and 2020 Naomi and her husband took in eight international students, four of them from Japan — noting that the Japanese students struggled the most with the language barrier.
"She (Yuuka) was just a headstrong girl who was like I'm doing this, I'm gonna do that and I'm gonna get it done," Naomi said in an interview with The Dickinson Press.
'Amazed at the differences'
Yuuka's home province on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is Agriculture dominant, with an economy centered on the industry. Shimizu, her hometown, has a 3 to 1 cow to human ratio and lies in a wet area with an annual average of 46 inches of precipitation.
“I was amazed by how different the agricultural practices were. And that kind of started me on pursuing agricultural studies,” she said. “In high school, I had multiple classmates who were involved in their family business. I didn't see that many farm kids getting involved in their family business in Japan.”
Her family has a dairy farm with 300-400 cattle on 48 hectares, or 119 acres, which made life a little more cloistered for the cows than typical in the United States.
“Our dairy cattle actually don't go grazing in the field. They just stay in the barn… So they just walk around the barn freely,” Yuuka said. “Here it feels like (farmers) are more advanced with animal welfare.”
She said the language barrier was especially tough during her first few months on the Western Edge.
“I still have struggles with English now. But back then it was at a different level. Like the first couple months I couldn't respond much because I'm trying to still understand, but they're expecting my response and my brain kind of freezes,” Yuuka said, adding that her friends and host family were very helpful in her gaining confidence and learning. “They were constantly trying to get me to express my feelings, thoughts and so on. They were very patient.”
During her time at DSU she said Blue 42 was one of her favorite spots to get food and hang out with friends. Last year she earned her bachelor’s degree in agriculture, with a focus on international agribusiness. Through her current internship with the North Dakota Trade Office she’s finishing up a second degree in international business.
Currently she lives in Rhame, N.D.
The remote internship entails tasks such as searching databases to screen the legitimacy of international companies seeking to do business with farming entities in the State, producing a commodities report and occasionally writing news articles.
After her internship, she says she plans to attend NDSU in Fargo to earn her master’s degree, and ultimately settle down somewhere in southwest North Dakota in agriculture.
Yuuka said that extracurricular groups such as Agriculture Club and the DSU Collegiate Farm Bureau Club were important to her success as a Blue Hawk.
"For the college students, I highly recommend them to be in those kinds of organizations and keep getting involved," Yuuka said, adding that she feels lucky to have landed in such a hospitable place.
"I'm so thankful for North Dakota communities for being very accepting over cultural things," she said. "I really appreciate how friendly North Dakota people are."
Bolstering trade connections
“My dream job will ultimately relate to culture and business. I would especially like to be connecting North Dakota and Japan,” Yuuka said.
Chip Poland, department chair of Agricultural and Technical Studies at Dickinson State, said international students bring diversity and global perspectives to campus, but that he’s most excited about the potential opportunities strengthening global trade.
“From an agricultural perspective we produce way more than we can consume and in terms of new markets for things that are produced in North Dakota, and export opportunities are huge across the globe — particularly for agricultural products. Everything from used farm equipment to soybeans, wheat, cattle and everything in between,” Poland said.
He said he has observed that most of his students love this area and aren’t too keen on leaving, which leaves many international markets under served because the requisite business relationships are never established.
“So we took a route at one time of, how do we take domestic students from western North Dakota and attempt to prepare them to explore these export markets across the globe? And we came to the conclusion that there aren't a lot of students in western North Dakota who are thinking globally. Now they're thinking in terms of ‘Man, I'd like to access that market.’ But not a lot of them are thinking in terms of, ‘How do I go to help create that market? How do I serve that market without having to leave western North Dakota?’ And it doesn't work that way,” he said.
When Poland started in 2006 he said they had many Canadian students, but noted that in most ways they’re culturally similar to North Dakotans. He said he’s excited about Yuuka and seeks to attract more students like her who are interested in bridging economic ties. His hope is that these international students would graduate, return to their native lands and build new trade lines based on what they’ve learned about North Dakota farming.
“We try to service those markets by bringing international students here to figure out who we are and what we do, as opposed to trying to prepare domestic students to travel abroad — not that there aren't some domestic students willing to travel abroad. But they're few and far between, at least in our experience,” he said. “When they graduate, they will look for opportunities to go back home, wherever home is and say, you know, we need chickpeas, we need soybeans, we need canola, we need wheat, we need durum.”
A stingier State Department
Rus Kiser is Dickinson State University's international programs director. He said getting foreign students admitted has grown far more difficult in recent years, particularly since the pandemic. He said in the mid-2000s almost every visa applicant he worked with was accepted by the U.S. State Department, so long as they could prove they had the financial means to live comfortably while residing here.
Currently that standard is a bank account with $25,000, a hefty sum for many prospective students.
“In the mid-2000s. It was, you send the paperwork and they show up. It was pretty much a done deal,” Kiser said. “Now I actually, I don't want to say I coach, but I try to encourage our applicants to research the interview (process), think about what they’ll say and be prepared.”
He estimated 70% of applications he took over the past year were denied by the federal government. Kiser said he noticed that students from sub-Saharan Africa and certain countries in Eastern Europe are rejected more frequently than others.
Yuuka's adventure to North Dakota proved to be a life-changing experience. From being immersed in a new culture, language and agricultural practices, she discovered her passion for agriculture and international agribusiness. With the help of her supportive host family and community at Dickinson State University, she was able to overcome the language barrier and succeed academically while building a connection between Japan and the Western Edge. Through her internship with the North Dakota Trade Office, she hopes to strengthen trade connections between North Dakota and Japan, highlighting the transformative power of education and cultural exchange programs, and how they can shape the future of students like her — and the communities they live in.
For more information about Dickinson State University's foreign student programming, or to volunteer as a host family for future students, visit dickinsonstate.edu/admissions/international-students/index.html.