Saya, CEO & Founder @ Aril Studios, CA
"I think [an ideal] world [is] where we belong. I feel like I’ve been searching a lot of my life for belonging and I’ve only just recently found it because I found belonging in myself. In turn, that's helped me find the place that I can belong in the community."
Saya is an edu-designer, envisioning a global educational ecosystem that values sustainability, belonging, creativity and differences. She founded Aril Studios with the vision to design learning experiences that inspire people to learn and engage with their environment. During her "treat yourself" hours, Saya loves making art and writing children's storybooks. Saya graduated from Bard College, and completed her Master's in Learning, Design and Technology at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. She is a #Catalyst and was interviewed by RE-ENVISIONED co-founder, Nicole.
Take a moment and think about a child you care about. When you’re ready, tell me about that child. What makes them unique or special?
So, my family has a school in Myanmar called The Khayay School and I used to work there. This one girl, she’s five years old now and her mom was my colleague when I was working there. We worked in the office together. She started school when she was 18 months old, but her mom - who is Burmese - had lived in Japan, worked in Japan, had her first child in Japan and raised him there. And then, they moved back to Myanmar when she was pregnant with her daughter - Kiki. Kiki was born in Myanmar.
Her son enrolled in our school, so at first she was just a parent. At our school, we do multilingualism, so we have different languages and we really try to teach cultural empathy. The mom really liked the curriculum and the philosophy, and she ended up working at our school. She was essentially a school coordinator, connecting with the teachers, etc. and her daughter enrolled when she was 18 months old. She’s always been around adults and children, so naturally, Kiki acquired the ability to really empathize and speak fluently in English, Japanese, and Burmese while still having a really high level of empathy towards not only her peers but also adults. That is really fascinating to me because whenever I see her (now she's five years old), I speak with her in Japanese and she talks to me in Japanese. Then, I'll switch to English and she switches immediately. But as soon as a Burmese person walks by, she changes and speaks with them in the Myanmar language. She knows exactly how to switch between people and get to their level, if you know what I mean. I keep observing that: she's never lived in Japan, she's never really lived anywhere else, and yet she has this ability.
"One time I asked her, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' She just told me, 'I want to be a person - just a person.' And, I thought that was so deep. I thought, 'Wow, at five years years old you have this really human-way of thinking.' I don't know - it's so simple, and it's so unbound by anything."
I don’t know all of the psychology behind that, and that’s where we’re doing more research. I think the ability for kids to reach that level - that to me is the power of education. In that context, the power of a multilingual education. Whenever I think of that, I realize that’s the impact I want to see.
What do you hope for this child for their childhood? What’s a good childhood?
I’ve thought about this a lot in regards to a lot of students that I’ve encountered. I think part of it is that we always say we are preparing the child for the future and we put so much emphasis on trying to get them the right skills and knowledge as if we know what their future is going to be like. But lately I've been thinking, how do we prepare all these opportunities, so that as Kiki gets older, there is a place for her in the future? It's not necessarily segmented into only people who can speak English, or only people who can do math: there’s no limitations with that. I think that applies both academically, emotionally, mentally, and financially.
The fact of the matter is that in a lot of places there's always a lot of wealth disparity. Wealth has been a factor in determining the education someone receives and the possibilities in their lives. That’s an unfair barrier for anyone to grow. So, I’m really thinking about how do we prepare these experiences so that whenever Kiki grows older, she has choices. And the confidence and self-esteem to pick any choice possible instead of feeling like, "oh, that's not for me." How do you build that self-awareness that anything is possible for you and that those possibilities are available for you? It's coming both from both sides. For me, that would be the most important part of my responsibility as an educator: to be able to prepare the path and build the confidence to take on these paths.
Now, imagine that Kiki is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ or ‘successful’ life?
I think about this a lot as well: what is education, right? What do we have education for? What is our responsibility for it? A lot of it comes down to the self. So, my mom’s philosophy is that she wants to raise children who can do whatever they want in life, be happy, and be appreciated by society for the work that they do....wouldn’t that be a happy life? In that regard, you could be a teacher, designer, or construction worker, as long as you’re happy and you feel like others appreciate you for your work.
I think that I’m similar in that way - if Kiki is 30 years old and has the resilience and ability to believe in herself to make choices. I'm approaching 30 myself and going through this own process of figuring my own life out. What I’m really appreciative of is that I have the confidence that no matter what happens, I’ll make it through. I have the choice and opportunity to try new things, experiment.
"That mindset - to be able to think that you can do it and you can find that thing that makes you feel empowered and that you’re doing what you love and that you don't feel isolated, that you feel part of a community - I would think that would be a great life to have for Kiki. I think that really ties into personal happiness."
What do you mean by personal happiness?
I think happiness - and this I can only tell from my own personal experience - but...oh man, what is happiness?? It's so easy to feeling it, but it’s so hard to describe it. It’s just a feeling. For me, it’s when I am in a state where I feel like I’m at peace, that everything fits. It's an intuitive feeling where things seem just right and things are going well. Even a simple thing like sitting on my porch and reading while the sun is out: that’s happiness. I guess it’s also a mindset - looking at the good things in life and being able to appreciate them, which turns into this feeling of happiness. I don’t think happiness is necessarily a long-term thing: being human you get happy, sad, angry, frustrated - there’s all these feelings. Happiness is one of those feelings that tie into that. It goes with this awareness and the ability to be happy: the ability to look at things in - and I don’t want to say just optimistic because I don’t want to say that everyone should say, "everything's fine - I'm happy!" - it's more so being able to see the half glass full part of life. But, that's a good question that I may not have the answer to and I need to figure out on my own.
Is there anything you worry about getting in the way of them achieving that? Anything that keeps you up at night?
Well, for one, it’s about where she might go next. The way Myanmar is structured is that there’s the government-run system and the private school system. There are government-run private and public schools, like the school Kiki attends right now. In the private school you have unaccredited private schools and other international-accredited schools, the latter of which are very expensive and have a Western curriculum. With the unaccredited schools, you can only go to vocational schools afterwards or you can't really go to a four-year college later on. In the government- run public schools, the learning is very rote – there isn’t a lot of creativity or subjects like music or art. It's very focused on academics.
In that sense, for a girl like Kiki growing up with creativity, music, art, etc. the big question becomes where does she go for high school or college? International schools are so expensive and unaffordable for a lot of families. For one, finances can be a big barrier. In that sense, are there schools that bring in this progressive pedagogy that will allow her to thrive beyond our school? Right now, that infrastructure isn’t there. The big barrier would be a national infrastructure that would be able to sustain a progressive pedagogy without the full finances. Students with families that don't have ability to pay $15,000 every year for 13 years - where do they go? That's where The Khayay School is trying to fill the gap as an affordable, private, government-registered school with a progressive pedagogy. And that'swhy the resilience and self-efficacy part is so important because at the end of the day, the student needs to have agency and to take ownership of their own learning so that regardless of where they are, they can still learn and overcome those circumstances because they believe that they can learn, that they have a future, and that there’s possibility. That barrier to reaching your full potential is prevalent in a lot of places.
Ideally, what role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
I think that schooling should really prepare students to be adaptable and be able to thrive wherever they end up. Because the world is changing so quickly and the rise of technology is so quick, and people are moving from country to country, borders are being blurred, and therefore there are a lot of cross-cultural environments, you’re going to face a lot of new environments and experiences and you’ll want to thrive in those environments.
"Schools have a big role in preparing students to embrace change and differences, to have an open mind, and also build a love of learning without feeling insecure - low self-esteem for learning what they want to learn, for experiencing or exploring what they want to explore."
I remember when I was in school we weren’t allowed to speak any other language than English. So, I did not get to learn my own culture - I never learned to read and write complex Japanese characters, which really frustrates me when I go to Japan. I want to be Japanese, I want to connect with that, but I can’t. When I was in 4th grade - I went to an international school with American curriculum - and we learned about the Hiroshima bombings and WWII. Kids would come up to me and say, “You’re Japanese - this is your fault.” In 4th grade, I think that's very emotional - I would come home crying. In that sense, school shouldn’t be there to single out differences, it should be there to neutralize it and say, "Okay, we have differences, but we have to learn to live with them and learn how to live with them."
With the race and immigrant issues in the U.S., or even the xenophobia that exists in Japan, it is a big responsibility for the school to teach that sociocultural aspect. At the end of the day, humans are social creatures and the fact that there’s more automation, technology, and innovation - we don’t know what the future will look like. So, collaboration is going to be even more important and the ability to collaborate with others who are different than we are. These interpersonal skills are really important to learn both in schools and at home, which are more homogenous because it's your family. Schools are more diverse by nature. And of course all of the other things - creativity, math, science, etc. That's all in there, but one of the things I feel like they’re not emphasizing that much is that interpersonal or sociocultural aspect.
Do/will schools play the role you think they should for your child? Why or why not?
I think some schools are, but I also don’t think one school can do everything. This is where I think communities come into play. There are some schools out there that Kiki would have an amazing STEAM education, and there are others that I think would she would have an amazing education in creativity, or if she went to our school she would have his amazing sociocultural education - cultural empathy and learning beyond differences. But I think for one school to offer all of that - that would be a perfect school. But also, you can’t expect one school to do everything. One, just on a practical level, that’s not scalable. And two, it’s a lot of manpower and energy.
So, how do you leverage a community to address these gaps that schools might not be able to offer? While I don't think that there are schools out there that can provide every aspect of what I think Kiki needs to be a successful thirty-year old, there are things within the community that can help - family education, after school programs, friendships - there are experiences that can be created around the school. We like to think about school as the 8:00 am to 3:00 pm place of learning; but they're learning all the time!
"So, how do we redefine school so that every day is school, every day is learning? That’s where I actually see the future of schooling in that it’s not an institution, it’s not necessarily an infrastructure, it’s not a building. When people think about schooling, they think about the time a student spends in an educational institution. But, life is school."
In that sense, if we restate that question and we define that life is a school, then, yes, in that sense, that is a school where Kiki can learn what she can be a thirty-year old with a good life. So, maybe that's an interesting place to start: if we redefine what school meant, then maybe the possibilities for the good life arise in every second and opportunity in her lifetime. Which is actually quite eye-opening to think about.
When you think about the kind of world or society that you want to live in, what would make it a “good” world or a flourishing society?
I think it’s a world where we belong. I feel like I’ve been searching a lot of my life for belonging and I’ve only just recently found it because I found belonging in myself. In turn, that's helped me find the place that I can belong in the community.
"At the end of the day, I think human connection is so powerful. Whether that’s peer to peer, through a mentor, or through family, people play such an important role in each other’s lives that a place where you feel accepted and you can accept others - and not on just a community level but a global level - that would be ideal."
In an ideal world, if there are conflicts, people would sit down together and resolve them together - there would be conflict resolution. There would be a sense of maturity that comes with empathy. This ability to coexist.
That said, the risk of that is that I don’t want it to be systemized and structured. There is this chaos in human nature which is why you have so much diversity. What’s the middle balance between making sure everyone maintains their individuality and differences and yet can still be accepted and embraced for who they are? That would be amazing.
Given your answer, what do you think the role of schools should be in creating that ideal society?
If we were to talk on an idealistic level, schools are essentially microcosms of what society is like. Or maybe it should be microcosms of what society is like. I support mixed-aged learning - I think there is beauty in that. When we work in our jobs, we don’t just work with people our age. We're communicating with people across all ages. Life is not like a textbook where when you learn science, it's just science. No, you incorporate math. It’s very much a canvas where you bring in all sorts of skills and ideas that you apply. I think schools can be incredible practice grounds - places where kids can explore, connect the dots, and apply their creativity. I know there are schools out there that do that, whether it's project-based or mixed-age learning. But, really connecting to the world that students will go into.
I think that is one way to really get at global consciousness. Technology can be a way to facilitate this - I don't think it's the end all be all - but it can connect people geographically that you weren't able to before. So much of past innovation efforts have been based on where you are geographically. Technology is one way to surpass that barrier. That can also become a bridge for connecting people to different places globally.
There’s so much I think a school can offer - and it’s hard to say that it should be one thing or another because it depends on the context kids and the place as well. Having the school be really contextual is super important. A student in Nepal will have a very different experience than a student from the Hamptons versus a student from the slums of India. In that sense, how do we contextualize for them and how does a school fill in the gaps they need to be apart of the global world?
Do you think people agree with you on each of those levels?
I think there might be some people who agree with that, but it’s hard to tell. There may be parents who think a good life is very specific, like monetary or financial success. Underlying that is because having that wealth would be good for the student in the long run to not have to worry about money. I think at the end of the day, parents want their kid's happiness and the ability to live they life they want. But, I don’t know if they would agree in the how, which might be because I haven't spoken about it with enough people. For the most part, the people that I've had these discussion with, our philosophies align. But, I do wonder if there will be people who don’t agree as much for the need of being super global and open to differences, mainly because of the circumstances of how I grew up. I grew up Japanese but in different countries. If I went to the Midwest, would they agree, or would it make sense to them? I’m not sure.
What about the role of school in achieving that good life, and if schools are currently doing this?
I hope so. I think some parts of it is more or less - I don’t want to say universal - but providing students with the skills and knowledge to survive in the future seems so. I would hope most people would agree with that. I think the big issue is that since schools can’t do everything, they have to make choices. A school has to make choices with their human resources, or with their teachers. What do we put our energy into? Because it’s such a human-run operation as well, there’s a lot of frustration with adding more and more on their plates. There are circumstances that make it difficult for schools to consider if it’s important enough for the school to focus on it. For example, with bilingual education there is a debate if it’s really important to be bilingual. For me, I believe it's good to know different languages, but there are some people that think English is enough and we should just focus on that. So, the point of contention may be if we need to be super global or not.
What have been some of your most empowering educational experiences? This doesn’t have to be in school – it could be outside of school or after you finished.
When I was a freshman in college, I was a writing a French essay at 3:00 am. I was really stressed because it was finals, and I had already written three essays. I didn't know how to write this sentence, so I copied an English sentence and Google translated it into French and put it in the essay. Turns out, it was a sentence from the summary of the book. So, I got caught for plagiarism by my French teacher. It was this terrifying moment because she called me into her office after class and we started talking and she told me I could get kicked out for this. For me, it was so painful to hear because I got into Bard College on a scholarship. My dad had told me that if I didn't have a scholarship, it would have been really hard to send me to an American college. I couldn’t go to the Burmese schools because I didn’t know the language and also I didn't go to the public schools. I couldn't go to the Japanese schools because I don't read or write in Japanese. I thought, oh my gosh, what am I going to do? Is my life over?
I talked with her and she said she would submit it to the ethics committee. After several meetings with the dean, I ended up getting an "F" in that class. But after that, twice a year I would go see this teacher and she became my mentor. By my senior year, I told her I wanted to go to graduate school one day and I didn't want this "F" on my transcript, so what could I do to change it? She said, "Okay, if you write me the most beautiful essay in French about cheating or plagiarism, I will consider giving you a pass.".
I spent the next year really thinking about what to do. It was a year later, right before my graduation, I had nothing. But then, I had this moment of inspiration, and I wrote this dialogue between the id, ego, and superego about the idea of appropriation and intellectual property. It put in Kant, Heidegger, Socrates - it was a Socratic dialogue essentially. So, I made a 20-page dialogue about the idea of intellectual property in French. The day before my graduation, I submitted it to her and I didn’t hear back for a while. About a week later, right before my graduation, she emailed me back and essentially told me it was the most amazing essay she had read, and that she had decided to change my “F” to an “A.” She had originally told me it would be a pass, but she gave me an "A" which really helped my GPA. She went on to write my recommendation for Stanford, I still keep in touch with her. She's been one of the most important people in my life.
"For me, the educational experience was: 1) no shortcuts - you have to think on your own to produce anything worthwhile; and, 2) if you put your heart into it and don’t give up, if you don't let circumstances and the choices you've made bind you, then you can overcome these things."
And for me, that was a very important educational experience because I still carry that: let them say no. I will keep going until I really can’t, because at the end there is always a solution to a problem. That had the most impact on my life and it’s taught me a lot about being honest and open, and not being afraid to stand up for yourself.