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Nicole Colburn, a Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) art teacher at Iwakuni Intermediate School, looks around her classroom at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, Jan. 12, 2024. A native of Shirley, Massachusetts, Colburn teaches art as a way to follow her passion for the history, culture, and creativity of art.(U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Peter Rawlins)

Photo by Cpl. Peter Rawlins

Doing What You Love

8 Feb 2024 | Cpl. Peter Rawlins Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan

Every three years the bittersweet ritual of packing your bags unfolds once more, ushering you into yet another cycle of beginnings, each departure marking a fresh chapter in the ongoing saga of reinvention and adaptation.

Nicole Colburn, an art teacher at Iwakuni Intermediate School and MC Perry Primary school, experienced these events first hand while growing up. Having a father in the U.S. Navy provides unique opportunities and experiences, and exposed her to things such as traveling and being able to work for organizations that support military families like the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). DoDEA’s mission is to educate, engage, and empower military-connected students to succeed in a dynamic world, and there’s no better example of an educator who does just that than Colburn.

Colburn was born in Shirley, Massachusetts, and along the way lived in Maine, Maryland, Spain, California, Turkey, Bahrain and now Japan. With Colburn’s father being in the Navy, her mother worked as a teacher at local schools at each of their new three year homes. Being constantly on the move, only a few things stay the same for Colburn: her family and being able to exercise her creativity. This childhood lifestyle set the stage for what she now loves to do most in life: travel and see beautiful art all over the world while exercising her own creativity.

As an adult, Colburn earned her bachelor's degrees in Art History and Art Education from the University of Maryland. Shortly after graduating, she began following her mother’s legacy of teaching children from all walks of life by becoming a teacher for DoDEA. She now gets to travel the world, and teach art to students from various countries, moving to new places every few years. Since becoming an art teacher for DoDEA, Colburn has taught thousands of students has been able to experience the culture of various countries first-hand through their unique art and histories.

Despite having moved countless times both as a child and adult, Colburn’s most recent transition was especially difficult after leaving her cherished five-year residence in Bahrain – where she truly felt at home – to living in Japan, where she has had to adapt in numerous ways to the culture and many other different aspects of everyday life.

“I was picked up (at the airport) by my sponsor(principal), and it was raining. Everything was gray and I just cried,” Colburn explained.

Adjusting to a new environment can be challenging in the beginning, particularly when confronted with the unfamiliarity of living in a different foreign country, even though its the fifth time. Despite this, Colburn eventually started adjusting to Japan by going to flee markets and small stores and galleries around MCAS Iwakuni and throughout Japan, immersing herself in the local community.

Her love of travelling and seeing local art and history hasn’t dwindled since being in Japan. Just as in the other places she has lived, Colburn has invested much time and attention in exploring the unique art and culture that Japan offers. .

“She has promoted art to our students in her instruction, not so much as we're just going to draw, but [mentors the students about] the history and the art philosophy behind the projects they do,” said Dr. Hoai-My Winder, the principal of Iwakuni Intermediate School. “I've taken a lot of classes to show people a lot more contemporary artists,” said Colburn. Introducing people to art experiences that might be overlooked by others, exploring museums, or checking out art from various time periods plays a crucial role. It helps people see and understand the creative process more tangibly, offering a fresh perspective on art that some might take for granted. It's all about broadening their horizons and sparking creativity in their minds

In addition to teaching and supporting her students, Colburn spends a lot of time planning and enriching the art programs for students at MCAS Iwakuni. She makes sure to highlight all students at MCAS Iwakuni, giving these young minds a unique chance to share their art with the world.

“Colburn likes to teach the students all the basics from the beginning, to establish a good foundation, so the students don't build bad habits,” said Winder. It shows how much she cares about creating a lively art community at MCAS Iwakuni.

As part of that lively art community, Colburn is dedicated to creating lessons that resonate with her students' interests, ensuring each session is uniquely tailored to their individual needs. Her approach involves applying curriculum elements that captivate and engage students, while creating a dynamic and personalized learning experience.

“I like seeing where you can take alternate paths, seeing the kids branch off,” stated Colburn about the creativity of her students. “Academic success, isn't the end-all-be-all.”

Furthermore, Colburn often goes the extra mile by using her days off to help with the White House art presentation. The White House art presentation is where students all over MCAS Iwakuni had the chance to have their art displayed in the White House. She reached out to other art teachers at the local schools and gathered their students' artwork for a competition. Particularly, some of those students have awards and a select few have even had their art hung up in the White House. It demonstrates Colburn's dedication to promoting art and giving students a chance to show the world what they can do. Colburn has taught art for more than 25 years now and continues to do so because it's her passion. She aspires to share her passion with not only her students but with everyone she meets. She might not be a traditonal art teacher, but that’s what makes her stand out above the rest: her love for everything about art – its history, the culture it shares, and the creativity that it allows people to express.

“I just want others to love art as much as I do,” said Colburn.

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