Student Spotlight


Matt Donley with host family in Japan

We're finishing off the year strong with our spotlight, Matt Donley, who exemplifies how passion for a foreign language and culture can be rewarding and expand one’s intellectual and personal perspectives in unexpected ways. A senior Psychology and Japanese double major from Houston, Texas, Donley was nominated by Professor Noriko Hanabusa for his enthusiasm and ambition for learning the Japanese language. Donley had studied Spanish during high school, but became trilingual after Hanabusa encouraged him to attend the Middlebury Japanese Academy for languages in California the summer between his sophomore and junior year of undergrad. Donley’s advice for others is “do what interests you, and to explore classes outside your academic field” , which is how he originally fell in love with the Japanese program here at Notre Dame.

Foreign Language Experience

Matt Donley Daibutsu Kamakura

After enrolling in Professor Michael Brownstein’s “Samurai in Classical Japanese Literature” course his freshman year, Donley became fascinated by Japanese Literature, enrolling in a language class the following semester. Apart from Japanese culture, Donley loves both the sound of the language and the sense of accomplishment he feels in learning the written Kanji characters and their meanings. Studying Japanese requires a completely different and more challenging approach than that of studying Spanish, Donley explains. There are three alphabets and about 8,000 Kanji characters in all, of which he’s learned approximately 1,000. “Language learning strengthens our ability to be able to think in a different way,” he says.

On his own, Donley approached Professor Hanabusa of the Japanese Department about applying to Middlebury program, not only in order to catch up to his peers who had begun studying the language their first semester, but also with the long-term goal of truly mastering the language. After spending 8 weeks at Middlebury’s immersion-based program, Donley was able to study abroad in Tokyo, Japan as a Junior, where he was not only better able to delve into the Japanese language, but also into the culture and identity of Japan.

International Resume

Donley describes his summer at Middlebury some of the most difficult and most rewarding weeks of his life. He equally describes his four months in Japan as some of the best. Donley was awarded the Gilman Scholarship to fund his semester of study at Sophia University in Tokyo. While studying art, religion, and philosophy there, he fell in love with life on the island. In addition to the food that’s “so delicious and so healthy”, he raves about the many lively festivals he attended. Among these was the Sanja Matsuri festival, a Buddhist festival honoring a goddess in which participants carry a temple on their shoulders throughout town (see photo).

Matt Donley Sanja Atsuri

But Donley's most meaningful experiences in Japan were the relationships he forged. He still stays in frequent contact with his host family, who he says was always there to support him. He notes that he found this in almost everyone he met in Japan: “No matter what culture you are from,” he says, “if there is a sincere goal to learn, people will help you.”

While in Japan, Donley sought to truly succeed in mastering the Japanese language despite the frequent attempts of the Japanese he met to practice their own English. Donley describes many instances where he would attempt to speak to strangers in Japanese, and they would respond in English, exclaiming with pride they could understand every word of the “English” they thought he had spoken. These instances are due in part to the rarity with which Westerners attain proficiency in Japanese and thus Donley having to overcome others’ initial incredulity and surprise at his speaking ability. He recalls using his Spanish on occasion to pretend not to know English, allowing him to converse in Japanese instead.

University Experience

Matt Donley CSLC Spotlight hosting Japan Day

Back home at the University of Notre Dame, Donley continues to pursue his passion for Japanese language and culture through his coursework and the help of his friends and mentors. Professor Anre Venter, his psychology adviser, also has a great interest in Japanese culture and has been able to share his knowledge with him for the past few years. They have developed a friendship beyond academia by discussing their favorite Japanese films in addition to Japanese current events. In the classroom Donley turns to Professor Noriko Hanabusa, with whom he has been close since she helped him apply for Middlebury when he was still new to the Japanese language.

“Professor Hanabusa is energetic and is always trying to foster your language learning,” Donley says. “She has been super supportive in all of my Japanese endeavors.”

Donley’s passion for all things Japanese doesn’t stop outside the classroom, thanks to his mentors and extracurricular activities. Donley is the former Secretary and current President of Japan Club, and he has spent the past year organizing activities such as Japanese language-only “Lock-Ins” and cultural trips to Chicago. He promotes this Japanese program through the CSLC, which he describes as “a place for community engagement.” Donley balances his interest in Japanese culture with practicing his Spanish while volunteering in the South Bend community at La Casa de Amistad.

Looking Forward

Donley’s calm and down-to-earth personality complements his interest in world religions, particularly Buddhism, which he studied while in Japan. After graduating this spring, Donley plans to return to Japan to work, further study Buddhism, and to improve his already proficient Japanese. Eventually, he hopes to complete graduate work, but he is still debating which program of study he’d like to pursue. In the meantime, Donley advises everyone learning any language to persevere and to use the new language everyday. “Remind yourself about the love you have for the language and why you are studying it,” he says. “This will give you the motivation you need to increase your ability.”