North Central College - Naperville, IL

Japan disasters alter students’ plans

Life in Japan is gradually returning to normal for North Central student Ereka Funkhouser ’12.

Funkhouser, who’s majoring in Japanese and classical civilization, studies abroad at Iwate University in Morioka, a town of about 300,000 located in the Iwate Prefecture. She was shaken by the March 11 earthquake, but her school, 40 miles from the coast, was not directly impacted by the devastating tsunami. “The coastline was really decimated by the tsunami, but Morioka’s own earthquake damage was minimal,” she said in mid-April.

At the time, she was contending with strong aftershocks and concerns about radiation leaking from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Where she lives, residents are eager to help others more directly affected by the disasters. “Almost every store window, every street corner has a sign of encouragement, and there are school clubs collecting disaster donations,” she says.

Funkhouser was one of six North Central students studying in Japan when the 9.0 earthquake struck at 12:45 a.m. Central Standard Time. Long before most Chicagoans awoke, North Central’s Office of International Programs staff, including Bessma Shammas, secretary, Amber Kettmann, graduate assistant, and Jack Shindler, professor of English and director of international programs, were in action, contacting students in Japan. Within hours, all were accounted for as safe.

“We were able to get in touch with our partners over there,” says Shindler. “Having close relationships with the heads of those programs is very important.”

Funkhouser and Japanese and global studies major Gina Fazio ’12 decided to stay in Japan while four others returned home. Mitch Graham ’12, who’s majoring in Japanese and psychology, was studying at Kanda University of International Studies, about an hour south of Tokyo. “I was getting messages on my cell phone—alarms saying there was a 70 percent chance of another quake of 7.0 or stronger. That, plus the nuclear concerns,” prompted Graham to catch a flight out of Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on March 14.

The disasters affected others in the North Central community. Japanese students studying in Naperville as part of an international exchange program were concerned about their friends and family. There are dozens of North Central alumni living in Japan and North Central staff contacted many to determine that they were safe.

An alumnus who studied and lived in Japan for more than six years, Brian Hampson ’03 and his wife Mika have raised more than $1,000. They are donating the funds to the website They started a blog, to help with relief efforts.