Finding a Home in History & Japan

Sheiling in Japan

While searching for a thesis topic, a grad student’s passion for anime took an unexpected turn.

When Sheiling Valerio-Sanchez, discovered the history program at SUNY Brockport something clicked.

She arrived in Brockport from the Bronx after being accepted into the EOP program. Valerio-Sanchez was an accounting major before realizing it wasn’t for her. All it took was one required history course.

“I loved it so much. It was fascinating,” said Valerio-Sanchez. “It was a world history class and I don’t know but something clicked and I’m like okay, this is what I want to do.”

That same week, she changed her major.

Valerio-Sanchez says she found history fascinating and definitely not like history in high school.

“It’s completely different, much broader and gets you thinking. It’s not as narrow or boring,” Valerio-Sanchez said. “It’s not a black and white, (like) this happened, and that happened. There are so many versions and different interpretations of a single event.”

In 2018, she earned her undergraduate degree and enrolled straight into the Department of History’s master’s program.

“I had the tremendous pleasure of watching Shei evolve from an accounting major in my modern world history seminar, who defected to the history department after realizing that pursuing a degree in history at the undergraduate and graduate level was her path to empowerment and purpose,” said Meredith Roman, associate professor.

While earning her master’s degree, Valerio-Sanchez decided to tailor her research toward her interests. Those interests included Japan, which stemmed from a love of anime, and the Dominican Republic – her childhood home.

“We came up with this idea about Japanese immigration into Latin America and focused on immigration into the Dominican Republic and race,” she explained.

Valerio-Sanchez had noticed an effort made in her Dominican Republic hometown for more Korean and Chinese immigration. She said that the community felt like it was unprecedented, as it wasn’t a big city. However, through her research she found that there was precedent.

In 1936 the Dominican Republic encouraged Japanese citizens to move there and offered them land and tools. The research concluded that their efforts, were not remarkably successful and poorly documented. In the end, Valerio-Sanchez says she’s still not sure why it ever began.

“She unearthed everything she could find on the history of Japanese immigration to and settlement in the Dominican Republic, including works written by Japanese and Dominican scholars,” said Anne Macpherson, PhD, chair of the department. “Her analysis set her case study in the context of broader Asian immigration to Latin America and in relation to the construction of twentieth-century Dominican national identity as white by the US-backed dictator Rafael Trujillo.”

“It’s a period of history that’s very much forgotten in the country,” Valerio-Sanchez said. “I feel like this was a significant thing, even though it wasn’t on a large scale. But it’s so completely forgotten.”

Brockport to Japan

“With time, my interest in Japan grew beyond liking their animation into something more academic and historically-driven,” she said.

She connected with associate professor Takashi Nishiyama who supported Valerio-Sanchez’s growing interest and connected her to an opportunity that would bring her across the globe.

“Shei was special at our dept in quite a few ways. For instance, in my classes she took, she always asked unusually intriguing questions which, I think, reflected her background as a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who arrived in the US at the age of ten. Equipped with awesome intellectual ability, Shei is a microcosm of the multi-ethnic/racial world of the 21st century,” said Nishiyama.

In 2020, she applied to JET, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. After being accepted the COVID-19 pandemic delayed her departure to Nagasaki, Japan until April of 2022.

“I’m really excited,” Valerio - Sanchez said.

According to the JET website, “a competitive employment opportunity that allows young professionals to live and work in cities, towns, and villages throughout Japan … Most participants serve as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) and work in public and private schools throughout Japan; some work as Coordinators for International Relations (CIRs) as interpreters/translators.”

Applicants have about a one in five chance of being selected.

“I am sure she will be a great trans-national ambassador of the USA in Japan with her cheerful, genuine smile, which will convey a friendly and happy Latin American culture,” Nishiyama added.

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Author: Meghan Finnerty

Posted: August 25, 2022