UNC gymnast goes for top marks in Hong Kong

Michelle Ikoma

While the American women’s gymnastics team is shining at the London Olympics, an outstanding Carolina gymnast has been having an international adventure of her own.

Michelle Ikoma, a junior exercise and sport science/business administration major and Carolina Varsity women’s gymnastics team member, is taking business classes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) this summer as part of the Phillips Ambassadors program.

As a varsity athlete and Phi Beta Kappa scholar, Ikoma was surprised that she would be able to include a study abroad experience in her time at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Coming to Carolina, the idea of studying abroad sounded intriguing, but I didn’t really give it serious consideration at the time. I just assumed that it would be too costly and incompatible with our gymnastics training program,” Ikoma, a regular member of the team’s vault lineup, said.

However, while interning with the undergraduate business program at Kenan-Flagler Business School, Ikoma spoke at length with Angela Dickerson, the associate director for global programs, and decided to look into studying abroad.

Ikoma quickly learned that she could choose from among several shorter programs overseas, lasting six weeks or less, that would not conflict with her gymnastics training schedule. She also applied for and earned admittance to the Phillips Ambassadors program, a merit-based scholarship designed to provide funding, context and meaning for a student’s experience in Asia.

“After talking with my parents and coaches  — all of whom enthusiastically encouraged me to take this opportunity to study abroad if I could — I decided to apply to the CUHK International Summer School program,” Ikoma said.

“I knew that I wanted to go somewhere in Asia, because it’s a region of the world that is changing rapidly and will play an increasingly critical role in the global economy and world politics in the coming decades,” she added. “As a business student interested in finance, the ‘financial capital’ of Asia seemed like the perfect place to study. In addition, the timing of the program fit well with our off-season gymnastics training. The program at CUHK gave me the best of both worlds, so the decision was easy.”

Now more than halfway through her study abroad program, Ikoma said her time at CUHK “…has been one of the most incredible and eye-opening experiences that I’ve ever had. Simply learning in a global classroom with students from not only Hong Kong but also from all over Asia, Europe and the Americas has been a fascinating study in comparative contemporary culture.”

Ikoma said that “wandering around the different parts of the country and witnessing the unique, and often paradoxical, blending of East and West cultures has challenged many of my admittedly naïve preconceived notions about Hong Kong.”

“Experiencing the ‘illiteracy’ of being surrounded by street signs, menus, advertisements, instructions and directories all written in a language that I cannot even begin to comprehend has given me much more empathy for non-native English speakers living in the United States,” she said. “Studying abroad has already proven to be one of the most invaluable experiences that I’ve had as an undergraduate student. In just a few short weeks, I have gained perspective and insight that no textbook, documentary video or classroom lecture could ever fully capture.”

“While the coursework at CUHK is certainly on-par with the rigor of UNC classes, 95 percent of what I’ve learned has been of the purely experiential sort that can only be gained from spending time abroad.”

In addition to her membership in Phi Beta Kappa, Ikoma is a two-time East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) All-Academic Team member and a 2012 Arthur Ashe Scholar. She will return to UNC for the fall 2012 semester.