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T.J. Turner of Kernersville graduated in the spring of 2020, part of this most unusual class of students who were unable to take part in the standard graduation ceremony and departmental celebrations that typically mark the end of the undergraduate career. T.J. navigated the end of his senior year and the 2020 pandemic with positivity and optimism.

T.J. made the most of his time at UNC, double majoring in Chemistry and Asian Studies with a concentration in Japanese. He studied abroad at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, for the spring semester of 2018, supported by a competitive Phillips Ambassadors fellowship. He also worked in the laboratory of Professor Stephanie L. Gupton in the Chemistry Department, a specialist in cell biology.

I spoke to T.J. about his experience with Asian Studies:

Q: What role did Japanese play in your time at Carolina?

My first time abroad was the summer of 2014 (high school years) when I stayed with a host family in Nagoya, Japan for six weeks on an AFS program. I had an awesome introduction to Japan during this time but failed to make strong connections to other Japanese people around my age. Upon receiving my acceptance to UNC, in the spring of 2016, I already knew that I would be going back to Japan on a study abroad program to do some “unfinished business”; that is, I wanted to create lasting bonds with Japanese students during my college study abroad experience and hone my Japanese language abilities to connect better with the culture and its people while serving as an ambassador for black Americans. With this goal in mind, I applied for–and graciously accepted–the Phillips Ambassador program to spend my 2018 spring semester and summer at Keio University in Tokyo. I wasted no time, bonding with my fellow Japanese classmates, honing my Japanese skills, and deepening my knowledge of contemporary culture. Coming back to Carolina, I wanted to help students realize the roles the language can play in their respective fields and introduce them to resources to engage in languages and cultures that they are interested in; as a chemistry major and biology minor (I added Japanese later), I understand the importance of having culturally competent professionals in all fields of study. This drove me to become a study abroad peer ambassador and representative for Mango Languages on the UNC campus. Both positions allow to me to share resources with students and staff that could engage them in their language acquisition journey.

How might Asia influence or be a part of your plans for the future?

I plan on becoming a physician. While my interests in medicine range greatly from surgery to clinical research, my current aspirations are to become an aerospace physician. These doctors basically serve as general physicians for American astronauts and their families. This line of work would put me at the forefront of space medicine and in contact with leaders in the field from around the world. I hope to be a leader in space medicine that cooperates with several international partners all working toward the common goal of helping humans expand into space safely by the guidance of sound science and international cooperation. In this regard, I feel it will be imperative for me to improve cultural fluency and language proficiency in Mandarin and Japanese given the likelihood that these countries will continue to be influential “space powers” in the future. Not to mention I’ve already had opportunities to speak with patients in Japanese during volunteering in the clinic.

What currently keeps you busy?

I am currently the president of the Spread Love Foundation (SLF), a non profit founded late last year out of Durham. SLF aims to provide opportunities in STEM, medical science, and global opportunities to underrepresented youth. Our goal is to grow the next generation of diverse scientists and healthcare providers that will solve the world’s biggest problems and serve as role models to those disenfranchised kids who thought that a career in science was outside of their reach. We are currently in the process of building courses, establishing our presence in the Durham community, branding, and building our team of inspirational science lovers. As president, I hope to also let more of our underrepresented youth know about opportunities to study abroad on scholarship and sharing resources to learn more about becoming a medical doctor. Important to my involvement is showing that you can combine your interest in language/culture with medicine/science!

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