Amid the festivity and flying confetti of Tuesday’s Commencement Ceremony at the Barclays Center, one of 2023’s more accomplished graduates was conspicuously missing. Rather than passing the tassel across her mortarboard, Lelani Pacific-Jack, a political science major with a minor in Japanese, was crossing the Pacific. This spring she was awarded the prestigious Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) grant, which has given her the opportunity to travel to Washington DC, then onto Japan, for the very first time. Pacific-Jack’s journey is a testament to her passion for Japanese culture, her burgeoning interest in international relations, and her estimable dedication to learning the language.

A Brooklyn native and first-generation college student who grew up helping support a single mom and five younger sisters, Pacific-Jack’s interest in Japanese culture started when she discovered Japanese comic books, referred to as manga, after being brought to a bookstore in her neighborhood. She would soon find herself spending hours reading and exploring, inaugurating a lifelong obsession with the world of Japanese storytelling.

“Those adventures and those distinct cultural differences that I read about affected my imagination really deeply,” she said. “I guess I started to realize how much I liked reading about people different from me. I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of diversity when I was really young. For me, It was so interesting to read this combination of fantasy and reality and not be able to tell the difference between the two. I just went completely down the rabbit hole.” 

In high school, Pacific-Jack studied French for four years. However, it was in Baruch College’s growing Japanese Program, housed by the Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, that she finally had the opportunity to learn Japanese. Pacific-Jack describes learning the language as the hardest thing she has ever done, but despite the difficulties her all-out enthusiasm for the culture has allowed to persevere. In her final semester at Baruch, she completed her fourth Japanese class and is well on her way to advanced proficiency.

A journey to Japan has always been a dream of hers, but the obstacles sometimes seemed insurmountable for someone from her background. “The financial burden and the time commitment required to go to Japan are pretty intense,” she said. However, thanks to the support and guidance of her Professors Shige (CJ) Suzuki and Yukie Yamaguchi-Callahan, whom she refers to as her “sensei,” and Sandy Kupprat of the Starr Career Center, she discovered the JUSFC Summer Institute program, which unites her interests in international relations and her love for Japan. “I applied. I never thought I’d get it. But, I got it.”

The JUSFC Summer Institute, an organization that supports scholarly, cultural, and artistic activities between Japan and the United States, covers all expenses for Pacific-Jack’s trip, including flights, accommodation, and provides a daily stipend. As part of the program, she will have the opportunity to meet experts in Japanese studies and international relations, such as Professor Ian J. Miller, a historian of Japan from Harvard University, and Sheila A. Smith, Japanese policy expert from the Council on Foreign Relations.

But, for Pacific-Jack, this journey to Japan is not just about personal growth and cultural exploration, it’s also about representation and creating opportunities for others. One of the few Black women studying Japanese in her classes, Pacific-Jack is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusivity within the Japanese community.

“I’ve always been the only Black girl in all of my Japanese classes. I do think that promoting diversity is really important, creating that space for other people to appreciate Japanese culture,” she reflected.

“When I started meeting with all the other students who got in I saw that there were a lot of Black women there. And I tell my mom, ‘I don’t know what to say. What do I say?’ Because I’m just so used to being the only one. It’s like, wow, there are other people just like me who are interested in the same thing as me and studying the same exact thing as I am. It was kind of a surreal moment for me. I thought, maybe things can change.”

When asked about her plans after graduation, Pacific-Jack says, “Japan. Just Japan. Going to Japan. That’s always been the end goal. I haven’t even gone yet and I’m already thinking about how I can get back there.”