Alissa Hansford ’12 Expands Her Horizons in Japan

By Al Daniel

Her Greater Boston campus at Tufts University is a short commute from Cheers. (Yes, there really is such a bar and restaurant, located less than an hour away from Tufts by subway and a half-hour by car.)

But Kanazawa, Japan, has a place of its own where everybody came to know the name Alissa Hansford ’12.

The Kaname Bar & Café touts itself as “Part concierge, part drinking hole, part event space, part meeting place” as well as “the perfect venue for expats, tourists and locals to mingle.” Its specialized menu offers southern U.S. and Tex-Mex cuisine and international beverages, and live music is a common attraction.

One of Hansford’s go-to offerings was the language lounge, where she and the locals could help hone each other’s fluency in their respective tongues. By the time Kaname was her routine hangout, fellow regulars greeted her in passing on the street and she eagerly reached out to the space’s newcomers. Since returning stateside, she has kept in touch with the café’s manager.

As part of her major in International Relations and Japanese, Hansford seized the opportunity to spend all of her junior year in college at Kanazawa University. She flew out there on September 24, 2018, then came back on August 11 of this year.

The Tufts-Kanazawa study-abroad partnership offers both full-year and single spring-semester stays. In 2018-19, seven Tufts students took part, and Hansford was one of three who went early.

“It was mainly about course credits,” she said. “Because the Japanese department is small at Tufts, they alternate the courses they offer, so if I only did one semester abroad, I would have to take an entire semester off from learning Japanese.

“Mainly, though, I figured I would just take the plunge.”

She derived that decision from two prior excursions to the Land of the Rising Sun. Upon immersing herself there for 12 months, she soaked in the local culture, embraced her identity as an international student, and even flexed some interdependence.

Including Hansford, the international students and other foreign guests in her Kanazawa circles combined to represent at least 17 countries on five continents. And that figure only comes from tallying the nations she could immediately remember. The fellow foreigners she especially befriended hail from Australia, Finland, Spain, and Ireland.

Small settings with big benefits are a motif for Hansford, whether she is brushing this continent’s side of the Atlantic Ocean or embedded in a geographically slender Pacific island nation. Expanding horizons and establishing lasting acquaintances became a theme no later than when she exhausted her eligibility at one Montessori school in her native Durham and landed on her feet at another.

Upon transferring to the Montessori Community School as an Adolescent in 2010, Hansford yearned for a new world-language experience. Spanish had lost its appeal at her old school, so she accepted guide Michele Widd’s offer to focus on French.

When high school presented Japanese as an additional option, Hansford picked it up “on a whim.” At Tufts, she could only keep studying one world language. Japanese won out, she said, on account of “the smaller and more close-knit department.”

Her choice has naturally served her well, although her background in French has neither fizzled nor ceased to yield benefits.

“French is a useful language in international relations,” she noted, “because most of the bigger international organizations use English and French as the official languages.”

Besides a bona fide liftoff on lingual versatility, Hansford’s time in the Adolescent Community cemented the listening habits she has used to excel in her major.

“MCS really taught me to be curious about the people around me, and appreciate what everyone could teach me,” she said. “I think the Montessori space puts everyone on a level playing field, and encourages questions of curiosity. Those basic skills and values led me to IR.”

As she prepares to graduate from Tufts one semester early this December, Hansford has her eye on law school, an interest born when guide Peter Piche handed her a book on the Constitution.

“I couldn’t put it down,” she recalled.

Nor can she keep away from diverse groups between classes. Outside of international studies, Hansford has honed her diplomatic craft further as a student cofounder of the university’s Tisch Dialogue Fellows Program.

Per its website, the program is geared toward constructive “Student-led dialogues” that “advance innovative classroom learning at Tufts while cultivating closer connections among individuals and groups across the entire university community.” Tufts professor Jonathan Garlick, who is the organization’s senior fellow, built and launched it with the help of Hansford and other students.

“A lot of people my age still have trouble collaborating with people older or with more authority than them,” she said. “Montessori makes those people your equals, just with something to teach you. Also, Dialogue Fellows is entirely about asking questions of curiosity and getting to know how people think…MCS taught me those skills.”

Even the subject of her syllabus does not rest for Hansford when it logically should. Every Sunday, she joins the rest of the Tufts Japanese Culture Club for a mix of mingling and event planning. The annual autumn Matsuri is the crux of the club’s calendar, as it invites nonmembers for an array of Japanese pastimes.

The Tufts Matsuri might be as close as a Boston-area student will get to life in Kanazawa, unless they have taken or plan to take a Hansford-like plunge. Over the first weekend of June, she savored the city’s definitive festival, the Hyakumangoku Matsuri.

Honoring 16th-century general and first Lord of Kanazawa Maede Toshii’s approach to the domain that would become the city, the three-day celebration features a parade marching toward the historic castle. Hansford and other overseas guests danced at the June 1 procession’s closing site.

“Being able to participate in a festival so important to the city made me feel like I was a part of something there,” she said.

Hansford is now making haste to explore more of her American college town while she still can. And whenever the opportunity may arise (she started an internship outside of school in September), she can barely wait to get back home and see how her young city has grown. 

Durham and its attractions proved a sound reference point when Hansford went abroad. One of Kanazawa’s more placid points of interest is the Kenroku-en garden. She likened her walks and picnics there to those from her childhood at the Duke Gardens. Although, Kenroku-en distinguished itself through the peak of its cherry blossom season.

“Japan as a nation is a lot older than the US,” Hansford said, “but I think Durham could become one of those old relics like Kanazawa.

“Also, living in Kanazawa has inspired me to try to reconnect with Durham as an adult. I had a great childhood in Durham, but I think there’s a different sort of appreciation as an adult who can go out and experience a city alone.”