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‘He’s everybody’s friend’
Webster University senior Devin Yuji Spencer, Jr. of Japan has jumped between his home country and the United States many times for his schooling.
While in the U.S., Spencer came to Webster and, in his last semester, received the Global Citizen Award at the annual Student Leadership Awards Ceremony.
Initially, he received an email saying he won a student leadership award for being the president of the Japanese Student Society (JSA), but never thought it was the Global Citizen Award.
“I was surprised,” Spencer said.
Spencer was nominated for the award by Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs Assistant Director Bethany Keller, and a selection committee of faculty and students chose Spencer as the award’s recipient.
Keller, who first met Spencer when he came to Webster in 2013, said she nominated him because his experience has a strong connection with Webster’s mission of global citizenship.
“He takes the opportunity to do everything that he can to be an outstanding student,” Keller said. “He’s just one of those people that gets to know people.”
From Japan to the United States
Spencer grew up in Hiratsuka, a city located in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. He is the son of a father in the Japanese military and a mother who worked for an international trade business. In his pre-college years he was a star basketball player. He received offers from different Japanese colleges, but he always had a desire to study in the United States.
The desire became reality in his senior year of high school, where he went to study at Granite Hills High in El Cajon, Calif., which he said was a diverse school.
When he got to California, Spencer said he realized he did not know a lot about Japanese culture.
“I was kind of embarrassed,” Spencer said.
Spencer planned to play basketball in El Cajon, but instead he turned his focus to learning more about his culture. He studied on his own through books, magazines and the Internet.
He finished his year at Granite Hills High and returned to Japan to begin his collegiate education at J. F. Oberlin University, located in the Tokyo suburb of Machida. The university became an international partner of Webster University in 2011.
The partnership gave Spencer a chance to study in the United States. He officially enrolled as a Webster student in fall 2013 as part of an intensive English as a second language (ESL) program.
Spencer said he was drawn to the St. Louis environment because it was new for him. He said he has encountered many friendly and curious people.
“There are many people interested in Japanese culture,” Spencer said.
Carolyn Trachtova is the coordinator for the ESL program at Webster. She also teaches, and one of her students was Spencer. Trachtova said Spencer is outgoing and respectful, an “exemplary kid.”
“You can just see something special in him,” Trachtova said.
Trachtova said one of her favorite things about being an ESL coordinator is being able to learn about the world from her students, and Spencer is no exception.
Spencer returned to Japan after that semester, but it was not the last he saw of Webster.
Back at Webster
Spencer returned to Webster in fall 2015 for a whole year because of his success in the ESL program. Working in conjunction with J.F. Oberlin, Spencer is pursuing an international studies degree.
At Webster, Spencer is not just JSA president, but he is also a student in the Self-Defense Club and a player in the Video Game Club. He also participates in I-Fest.
Spencer said he will remember everything about Webster when he leaves, from the classes he took to the friends he made. Someone he will remember is his girlfriend, international studies major and sophomore Scarlett Fortin.
“He’s a really friendly, kind person, and he’s happy all the time,” Fortin said.
Spencer will leave Webster after the semester and finish his degree at J.F. Oberlin.
Spencer may be returning to Japan for a while, but he does plan to return to the United States on a permanent basis.
“I really love it here,” Spencer said.
Learning and teaching karate
One of Spencer’s biggest passions is karate. He first studied karate at a dojo in Japan. He wished to take up karate because he was bullied, and he said he did not have the courage to fight back. He also said English-language media properties such as Bruce Lee films and Power Rangers influenced him.
Spencer still actively trains himself and others in karate. He used to teach students and friends at Webster but stopped doing so when his friends started the Self-Defense Club. He said at the time, he was still learning and did not feel comfortable teaching them since they were older.
Instead, Spencer turned his attention toward teaching children, whom he now teaches every Saturday.
“When it comes to kids, they don’t care about how you punch and kick,” Spencer said. “They just want to have fun.”
Michiko Sasaki is the Japanese Teaching Assistant in the International Language and Cultures Department. She met Spencer through a friend in Sept. 2015. Spencer is also enrolled in her Japanese culture class.
“He is very passionate about learning and sharing his opinions,” Sasaki said.
Sasaki said Spencer is a nice, open-minded person who is always eager to learn new things. She said she believes this is why he was awarded.
Trachtova said she believes Spencer received the Global Citizen Award because he represents what it means to be a global citizen. She said he reaches out to all nationalities and makes an effort to connect with domestic and international students.
“He’s everybody’s friend,” Trachtova said. “He’s the kind of person that brings people together.”