Growing up in Japan, Atoka Jo, a Social Research and Public Policy major at NYU Abu Dhabi, realized that her classes were mostly taught the same way. Her teachers conveyed information, and the students absorbed it. She became curious about other ways of learning. And the more she studied education, the more she realized what a fundamental role it plays in society. For this reason, while she was still in high school, Atoka founded a summer school for middle school students. There, she encouraged active learning through discussion. She also decided that education and educational policy would be her mission. But first, she knew she needed to expand her perspective.

Atoka Jo smiling and facing the camera. The NYU Abu Dhabi campus, exhibiting tall palm trees and a paved walkway, is in the background.
Learning from Her Peers

That’s why Atoka chose NYU Abu Dhabi. She knew that she would learn alongside students from over 120 countries here—and have singular opportunities for global study. “I grew up in a monoculture environment in Japan. That’s why learning firsthand about other cultures, political systems, and economies is important to me,” she explains. “Learning through conversations with friends in my residence hall and at meals has been amazing.” Her drive to study education and policy—and how education fuels economic development—steered her to seek out all kinds of different experiences. For example, she mentored young girls in the UAE, tutored children in Argentina, and conducted research in Ghana. Her actions didn’t go unnoticed: Atoka recently received the prestigious Schwarzman Scholarship to continue her studies as a graduate student at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Eye-Opening International Experience

An important early step for Atoka came the summer after her sophomore year. She interned at the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations Economics Department in New York City, where she worked to spread awareness of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and advocate for peace. While it was illuminating for her to see the bigger picture of how policy is implemented, as a Social Research and Public Policy major, she wanted to learn how to help shape it. “I realized that I am more interested in working in the field than being on the diplomatic side,” she explains.

“I wanted to witness issues and opportunities for economic development with my own eyes.”

To that end, Atoka headed to NYU Buenos Aires and NYU Accra. “At NYU Buenos Aires, I learned about Argentina’s education system while improving my Spanish. I also tutored children from low-income families in English and math,” Atoka says. At NYU Accra, she taught in a public middle school and conducted her own research—an important step for a Social Research and Public Policy major. “I found out that, while student attendance was high, teacher attendance was low,” says Atoka. “Many teachers need second jobs to sustain their own families. When those additional jobs become demanding, they have to prioritize them despite wanting to be in the classroom with their students.”

A Future of Learning

With a better understanding of the challenges surrounding education in different countries, Atoka heads to Tsinghua University to pursue a master’s degree in Global Affairs. She’s excited to polish her Mandarin skills—with fluency in Japanese, English, Spanish, and Mandarin, she’ll be able to work all over the world—and study China itself. “I want to examine how China excelled in the 21st century. My goal is to see how similar methodology and policy implementation can be applied in other developing countries,” Atoka explains. “I want to devote myself to a career of improving education for economic development.”

Cat has been telling NYU stories for nearly 10 years with NYU’s University Relations and Public Affairs Office of Marketing Communications and is constantly inspired by what the people of this community make real. She’s also a proud alum of the NYU MFA program in creative writing, and runs a literary magazine in her free time. When she needs to get away from words, she does work in her neighborhood gardens and parks.