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Gulls Go Big in Japan on Career-Defining Journey

Endicott trip to Japan
Kelly O鈥橠onnell 鈥24 and Olivia Cafarelli 鈥25 were part of a group of Gulls that embarked on a dream trip to Japan, funded by a Freeman Foundation grant. They engaged in culturally immersive internships, tackling real-world business challenges with Japanese organizations, enriching their academic journeys, and solidifying their professional aspirations.
By: Sarah Sweeney

The 14-hour flight to Japan was a slog, but Kelly O’Donnell ’24 was well-prepared.

She’d studied abroad in Greece during her junior year; embarked on a study tour to Kenya with the Office of International Education another summer; and spent her fall senior semester interning in Cork, Ireland, with ASA Brands, Inc.

But the chance to visit Japan and immerse in the culture was O’Donnell’s lifelong dream.

“This travel course was a perfect opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” O’Donnell shared from the Halle Library, where she’s working for the Office of International Education this summer, alongside her trip companion Olivia Cafarelli ’25, who is working at the Internship & Career Center.

In May, O’Donnell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, communications, and advertising, and a whirlwind 48 hours later she was on a flight to Japan, marking the grand culmination of four years of international experiences for O’Donnell as a Gull.

Throughout the spring semester, 12 students prepared for the journey in a course taught by Dean of International Education Warren Jaferian called Japan: Workplace, Economy, and Culture (IDS388).

In line with Endicott’s commitment to providing Gulls with practical experience, students tackled real-world business challenges presented by four Japanese organizations throughout the course. They analyzed case studies, incorporated client feedback, and refined their solutions to meet the client’s needs. Capping the course was an in-person internship with organizations in Japan.

Endicott in Japan

“In addition to learning basic Japanese, the course explored deeply rooted values and traditions shaped through the centuries and others that are being transformed by today’s generation,” said Jaferian.

The trip was funded by a generous grant from the Honolulu-based Freeman Foundation, which fosters U.S.-Asia appreciation through educational and policy collaborations. This is the second Japan trip the Freeman Foundation has sponsored for Endicott, enabling the College to provide once-in-a-lifetime student experiences, a priority tenet for the institution, and the comprehensive fundraising campaign.

“The focus on exposing American college students to the Japanese workplace was and remains very attractive for our students’ education,” said Jaferian.

Jaferian explained that Endicott first applied for funding in 2019 but COVID prevented the class from traveling until 2022. At the time, Jaferian noted, Endicott was one of the few institutions able to travel to Japan, which was still under strict pandemic restrictions.

“After we returned from that trip, we had the great pleasure of speaking with Freeman Foundation President Graeme Freeman. He and the foundation were very pleased with our ability to travel to Japan at the time,” he said. “We intend to continue to offer this class and to submit future grant proposals to the Freeman Foundation.”

Bridging cultures through education

Cafarelli took Jaferian’s class from her computer screen in Florence, Italy, where she studied abroad last semester.

The communications major with an art history minor explained that she didn’t start traveling until a few years ago when she journeyed to Italy and knew immediately that she had to return for a study abroad experience. On a visit to Florence, Jaferian was kind enough to hand deliver Cafarelli’s course books.

“It’s one thing to read about a culture or a place online or travel there and do the main touristy sites, but to go there and immerse yourself in the culture, in the people, in a work setting gives you a different type of immersion that you wouldn’t get on a one-time vacation,” she said.

In Jaferian’s course, Cafarelli worked with Kokuyo, Japan’s leading stationery and office supply company.

Kelly and Olivia in Japan

“They’re a notable, centuries-old company in Japan, and they’ve ventured well into other Asian markets. But the brand has had a lot of trouble venturing into the Western market and they’re trying to reach a younger generation—so that’s where our team came into play,” Cafarelli said.

The team proposed various marketing initiatives, including store redesigns and introducing new products for students. They also conducted a student survey, giving Kokuyo firsthand insights into how to reach a younger, American demographic.

O’Donnell worked with the Sakae Institute of Study Abroad, whose mission is to promote U.S. liberal arts education to the wider Asian community and to provide scholarship information, private counseling, and placement services for prospective international students. The organization also struggled to reach a younger audience.

“They were using mainly magazines and print ads, but they didn’t understand why they couldn’t reach a younger audience. So, they wanted our help with introducing social media and coming up with a video they could show their students about life in the United States,” she explained.

O’Donnell’s main focus became producing that video, working with Sakae Institute alumni including Yoshiatsu Murata, the teaching assistant for Jaferian’s course.

The trip, which ran from May 20 to June 2, allowed the Gulls to immerse in Japanese culture, including professional culture—commuting, working a nine-to-five internship, learning differences in giving a presentation, including variances in PowerPoint presentations in Japanese culture versus the U.S., and beyond. 

“I loved it because we got to experience what it was like to live and work in Japan. We were taking the metro by ourselves. We got lost twice—but we made it,” said O’Donnell. “It was fun. It was a journey.”

Cultural immersion and career and personal milestones

At the end of her internship in the Kokuyo office, Cafarelli delivered a case study on how store layouts can drive sales.

“With a unique product like stationery, I presented how store layouts can set Kokuyo apart from their competitors in the U.S.,” she said. “We also talked about the positives and negatives. For example, store layouts here are so different compared to Japan. We discussed cross-cultural differences and challenges the company might face, but it offered them a way to enter Western markets.”

O’Donnell, instrumental in expanding Endicott’s study abroad , and soon joining ASA Brands in Cork for a full-time social media role this fall, premiered the video to Sakae, including some of its current students.

“Many students said, ‘Oh my god, I know Yoshi! He used to be here!’ It was so special,” she recalled. “Some teachers were even tearing up to see Yoshi is now on to his MBA.”

For Jaferian, who has been traveling and leading an international lifestyle since he was a kid, watching Gulls embrace a global perspective affirms his life’s work.

Warren in Japan

“It was a successful and unique experience for our students to be immersed in the Japanese workplace, collaborating in a cross-cultural environment and learning the nuances of working, commuting, and succeeding abroad,” said Jaferian. 

After Tokyo, Jaferian led the Gulls to Osaka and Hiroshima for cultural and historical visits to the Peace Memorial, among other destinations. 

For Cafarelli and O’Donnell, the journey also affirmed their futures.

O’Donnell said that before coming to Endicott, she was unsure about her professional plans, but with every international opportunity through the College, she’s solidified a foundation for her career. 

“I’ve marketed within the European Union, but I’d never had the opportunity to work with anybody from any Asian or non-Western cultures,” she said. But as she prepares for a social media marketing role in Ireland, she has another international marketing experience in her toolkit. “That’s beneficial for me to go into travel marketing in the future.”

In the fall, Cafarelli will undertake a semester-long internship at PR firm Gear Communications, where she’s ready to use the skills gained from Jaferian’s course and the internship in Japan.

After graduation, though, she’s considering her options.

“I might want to work in a collegiate setting and inspire other students to study abroad,” she said. “It’s one thing to read about a culture online, and it’s another to go there and talk to people, work, and get real-world experience in a place besides where you grew up. That’s a valuable skill for anyone to have.”

Learn more about international opportunities at Endicott.