Ball State alumnus to study women’s agency and feminism in Japan

Ball State alumnus Conner Zelmer (second row center) spends time with his friends from Ball State in Tokyo, including Ai Shikano (front row left) and Jesse Taskovic (front row third from the left). Ai and Taskovic both pushed Zelmer to apply for the MEXT scholarship. Conner Zelmer, photo provided.
Ball State alumnus Conner Zelmer (second row center) spends time with his friends from Ball State in Tokyo, including Ai Shikano (front row left) and Jesse Taskovic (front row third from the left). Ai and Taskovic both pushed Zelmer to apply for the MEXT scholarship. Conner Zelmer, photo provided.

Success is rarely accomplished alone. 

Whether assisted by one person or a million, success is built when people come together and provide a support system to push someone to be the best they can be. 

In the case of Ball State alumnus Conner Zelmer, his support system pushed him to apply for the Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship to study women’s agency and feminism in Japan. 

Zelmer recently found out he received the scholarship and is scheduled to fly to Japan April 1, with his classes starting April 6 at Keio University under Professor Akihide Inaba. 

With his acceptance, Zelmer became the second student from Ball State to earn the scholarship and the first student to win outside the Department of Modern Languages and Classics.

“The door is wide open for virtually any major as long as you can demonstrate that you meet all the eligibility requirements and have a deep commitment to Japan,” said Barb Stedman, the director of national and international scholarships. “Every successful candidate that comes out of Ball State, whether they be current students or recent alumni, I hope that helps foster that culture of scholarship here at Ball State.”

At Ball State, Zelmer majored in anthropology, and he said his interest in women’s rights manifested from his female connections. He said most of the women he knew were “motivated and driven,” but there always seemed to be roadblocks in their way.

Ball State alumnus Conner Zelmer (left) is seated with his friend Lookjun, a Thai friend he had made while studying at Kansai Gaidai, a language school in Osaka, Japan. Zelmer and Lookjun have remained friends over the years. Conner Zelmer, photo provided.

“During the time I spent at Ball State, I became very close friends with a lot of Japanese women,” Zelmer said. “Not to say Japan is this horribly sexist society — I mean, the world is; we’ve got some issues. 

“There have been times where it feels like society is holding these women back, so a part of that is just seeing these friends of mine who, to me, have these really great ideas but might not be given the same amount of credit or not being listened to just as much because of them being Japanese women.”

One of the women Zelmer has a close relationship with is alumna Ai Shikano. Through her, Zelmer became closer to alumnus Jesse Taskovic, the first Ball State recipient of the MEXT scholarship. 

Through this mutual connection and offhand mentions of his desire to pursue a master’s degree, Zelmer’s friends helped him apply for the MEXT scholarship. 

“Me and Ai have been close for a very, very long time, and I would say that’s the strongest mutual connection Jesse and I had,” Zelmer said. “So I was telling Ai literally a year and a half ago like, ‘Oh I was thinking about getting a master’s degree.’

“I think she offhandedly mentioned that to Jesse, and then he Facebook messaged me like, ‘Hey, we need to talk.’ And I hadn’t talked to Jesse in like a year, so I was like ‘What’s going on?’ Then we video chatted, and he said, ‘Here’s this scholarship that I did, and you’re gonna do it too,’ and I was just like, ‘... okay.’”

Taskovic said he shared the information for the scholarship with Zelmer because he wanted Zelmer to have the same experiences he did. 

“I was [helping Zelmer with the application process] purely out of the fact I truly just felt from the bottom of my heart that he needed this,” Taskovic said. “I didn’t hesitate for a second to push him. I truly felt something in my heart that he’s qualified for [this], more than myself even.”

Shortly after Taskovic told Zelmer about the scholarship, Zelmer said he reached out to Stedman for assistance since he only had four weeks to apply. 

Stedman said she and Zelmer had one “fairly long” phone conversation about the application, and then Zelmer asked her to edit and give feedback about various requirements. 

“He is a very hard worker, he is humble and very grateful,” Stedman said. “I think his gratitude for the MEXT scholarship and the opportunity to probably change the rest of his life through this scholarship is very evident in every email communication we’ve had.”

Because of their help, Zelmer said he credits Taskovic and Stedman for his success in achieving the MEXT scholarship, but both declined the credit.

“I did not apply for him,” Taskovic said. “I adore Conner, I do, and the thing is, he is 100 percent responsible for what happened. His friends, and having a support network, is because he’s a good person, and we’re more than happy to be his support network and to be there for him. That’s a natural consequence of being a wonderful human. It would be 100 percent possible without me.”

Zelmer said having friends and resources, like Shikano, Taskovic and Stedman, as parts of his support system is what made it possible for him to pursue such an endeavor. 

“At the end of the day, it’s doing what you have to do, but it’s more having the right people there to support you and will actively do work for you just because they’re nice,” Zelmer said. “It’s surreal, really. It’s surreal that for at least the entire trajectory of my life has changed because of people having faith in me.” 

Contact Elena Stidham with comments at


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