The Department of JET Programme Management, CLAIR
This fall, CLAIR Tokyo and local governments that employ JET Programme participants launched a new project. The project, called the JET Furusato Vision Project, took place between 26 October and 10 November 2017, and asked JET alumni for their ideas and support in an attempt to further expand the contributions of the JET Programme. From 17 March to 8 May 2017, CLAIR Tokyo received 106 project proposals from JET alumni around the world who were interested in implementing their ideas to help revitalise the local regions where they were employed. Eight former JET participants’ proposals were selected, and their visions were made into a reality with the help of CLAIR and their former employers.
The JET Furusato Vision Project is a two-year initiative; alumni whose former contracting organisations are in Western Japan were eligible to apply in 2017, and alumni who were placed in Eastern Japan may apply in 2018. In this article, we introduce the projects implemented in 2017 and some comments from the eight participants.
Hamada City, Shimane Prefecture – Rose Tanasugarn returned to her home country temporarily after being a JET participant in Shimane Prefecture, but now currently works in marketing and sales at a hotel in Kobe City. Having become more knowledgeable about communications, Rose decided to utilise her new-found knowledge and skills to talk about marketing with university students, local government staff, and other officials in her former contracting organisation of Hamada City. In addition, Rose used the connections she made on the JET Programme to help coordinate an event for foreigners in the local area. At the event, participants could both watch and try for themselves the Iwami Region’s famous ‘Iwami Kagura’ dance and ‘Iwami Pottery’. Though the event was threatened by inclement weather, the sun came out soon after it began, and many people came and enjoyed the event. When asked what the best part of the experience was, Rose commented, ‘There were so many “bests”, but it was probably the many coincidental reunions with former colleagues and students and being able to give back (to the community) was the best’.
Ehime Prefecture – After finishing the JET Programme, Jessica Shepherd returned to Canada to continue her education. While studying at graduate school, Jessica maintained her connections with Japan by serving as a sommelier of Japanese sake at several events hosted by the Japanese embassy. As she introduced the wonder of Japanese sake to attendees at the events, she noticed that many people were disappointed to hear that the sake she was serving was not available in stores. To fix this, Jessica decided to acquire a license to import sake to Quebec, and used the JET Furusato Vision Project to visit local breweries in her former contracting organisation of Ehime, which is famous for sake. After visiting multiple breweries to discuss the possibility of exporting to Canada, she managed to find a few vendors interested in her endeavour. Jessica is now back in Canada making further preparations to import local Ehime brand sake.
Oita Prefecture – Michael Carrasco, an associate professor of art history, took the opportunity to study Oita Prefecture’s bamboo arts and traditional basketry on the JET Furusato Vision Project. Michael met with renowned bamboo artists and craftsmen, officials and curators at the Oita Prefectural Art Museum, community members involved in sustainable bamboo forestry, and prefectural staff focusing on the preservation of traditional arts and crafts throughout the prefecture and performed numerous interviews. Michael’s vision is to utilise the connections he made on the Project to invite a bamboo artist to his university and/or plan an exhibition that includes Oita bamboo craftwork, thus spreading knowledge about this traditional art. Michael is currently working with his connections to investigate the next step in his Project.
Kyoto Prefecture – Patrick Monari, a second generation Japanese-American, did not have the opportunity to speak Japanese at home when growing up. He did, however, have the opportunity to enjoy Japanese cuisine, and identifies strongly with this food culture. While in Kyoto on the JET Programme, Patrick was particularly taken by Kyoto’s signature kyoyasai vegetables and kyotsukemono pickles, and decided to make this the theme of his JET Furusato Vision Project. Working with CLAIR, the Kyoto Prefectural Government, and the Kyoto Prefectural Association of Pickle Makers, Patrick was able to schedule interviews with pickle makers from major manufacturers as well as with smaller artisans. He also spoke with prefectural officials about the branding of Kyoto’s kyoyasai vegetables, and even spent a week before the project working on a farm to learn more about what makes the vegetables special. In addition to showcasing kyotsukemono on a popular Japanese cuisine Facebook page (Japan Food Today), Patrick plans to host a pickle-making workshop in his hometown with local supermarket and restaurant officials.
Tokushima Prefecture – Katherine Osgood first experienced special needs education while on the JET Programme, and since then, she has dedicated her life to being a special needs educator, studying the practices, and raising awareness. With the aim of giving back to those who introduced her to this passion in Tokushima Prefecture, Katherine decided to share her knowledge of the field with educators in Tokushima. Returning for the first time in a decade, she learned about the current situation of special needs education in the prefecture, exchanged opinions with education officials, and held a workshop for current JET participants and other local educators about best practices in special needs education. Regarding Katherine’s project, officials in Tokushima commented, ‘We were concerned at first about the limited scope of the topic of Katherine’s project and whether or not it would be able to pique the interests of students and participants in the workshop, but the teachers and students welcomed her warmly, and participants in the workshop were very proactive in asking questions. We think this was a great opportunity to think about special needs education in the prefecture’.
- Kitakyushu City – Julius Pang is a professional photographer and photo tour guide. Identifying prime locations for photo shooting throughout Japan, Julius leads groups of photography-savvy tourists, and while instructing them about photography techniques, shows them around the country to places where travellers can get their ‘best shot’. While Julius leads tours in Hokkaido and the Tohoku, Kanto, and Kansai regions, he had yet to develop a course including his former contracting organisation, Kitakyushu City. Thinking he could use his photography skills to help promote the city to more people around the world, Julius worked with CLAIR and Kitakyushu City to plan a 5-day photo-tour of the city’s most superb sites. The city was kind enough to negotiate with officials at locations around the city to allow Julius to shoot with his camera and drone in areas usually off-limits to photographers. Julius has been preparing the photos and videos he took for the city’s use in tourism promotion, while also considering the spots for a new photo tour. The city also hopes to use the spots Julius picked as reference for future travel promotion campaigns. While on the Project, Julius’s efforts were recognised by local newspapers and cable news networks; his photos also attracted a large number of followers on social media. To his fellow JET alumni, Julius commented, ‘I highly recommend the Furusato Vision Project. It is ideal because you can get a lot of help to contribute back to your furusato, and it helps promote Japan. I hope it continues for many years’.
Miyakonojo City, Miyazaki Prefecture – Boldbaatar Tsendsuren is a former CIR of Miyakonojo City in Miyazaki Prefecture. After leaving the Programme, she worked at a local cable television network in Miyakonojo, gaining experience in the television world. She has since returned to her home country of Mongolia, but continues her exchanges with friends in Miyakonojo, keeping up-to-date with the latest goings-on of the city. When she heard that Miyakonojo officials were making an effort to publicise Miyakonojo beef in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, she jumped on the chance to use her connections at television stations in both Ulaanbaatar and Miyakonojo to propose a programme introducing Miyakonojo beef to the people of Mongolia. For the project, Boldbaatar was planner, director, host, and editor of the programme. The local cable television network in Miyakonojo, BTV, assisted her by providing a cameraman and transportation for the duration of the project, and officials of Miyakonojo City arranged the shooting locations and interviews with local cattle farmers. After the project, Boldbaatar commented, ‘The people of Miyakonojo were very happy and thankful when they learned of my project to spread the word about Miyakonojo beef. I will have to work on editing the footage when I go back to Mongolia, but I want to make it an excellent programme worthy of the thanks I received from people here’.
Amakusa City, Kumamoto Prefecture – Zachary Johnson is working on a community art project to explore commonalities in both the Ushibuka region of his former contracting organisation, Amakusa City, and the Burton Heights neighbourhood in his town of Grand Rapids in the United States. Though each region faces different social and economic hardships, both areas are experiencing shifts in population and an increase in empty shops and homes, threatening the loss of the neighbourhoods’ histories. Seeing the situations of both neighbourhoods, Zachary proposed an art project focused on the enduring hometown pride felt by people in each region and their memories of the neighbourhood, rather than simply on the changing cityscapes. Zachary had residents of both regions write short messages regarding their memories, and photographed the participants in the associated locations. The memory, photograph of the location, and photograph of the person will be displayed together in an art exhibition in Grand Rapids planned for summer 2018. Zachary hopes that the exhibit will be an opportunity for people to reflect on what makes their communities special.
Each project operated on a very tight schedule, but each of this year’s eight participants worked tirelessly to make the most of their allotted time. Despite the tough schedule, all of the participants agreed that the JET Furusato Vision Project was an endeavour that they would recommend to their fellow JET alumni!
JET alumni whose former contracting organisations are in Eastern Japan are eligible for the 2018 JET Furusato Vision Project. Recruitment for project proposals will begin in late February, 2018, so please be sure to keep an eye on the JET Programme Homepage for more details!
Richa Ogra, Former Osaka Prefecture ALT, 2006-2008
It was the autumn of 2006 when my Journey as a JET began in Japan in the city of Osaka. In many ways it was a life altering experience for me. Little did I know that a country so distant and unknown to me, would become an integral part of my life and would change the course of my career for good.
As an ALT in Osaka, I experienced the hospitality, love, care and uniqueness of the Japanese people and culture first hand. It was the first time that the JET Programme had accepted Indian ALTs, 20 of us, to be exact.
During my 2 years as an ALT I worked with many junior high schools and senior high schools. Thanks to my supervisor and my colleagues at the various schools I worked at, I was given a lot of opportunities to spread knowledge about Indian culture and the Indian education system not only within the schools, but also within the larger community.
Being a trained English teacher working in Japanese Schools was a great learning experience. As an ALT I was invited to summer camps and various school events. Students were interested in Indian culture and would always come up with questions about schools and student life in India. I successfully started a Pen Pal Programme between an Indian school and a high school in Osaka.
The Japanese teachers that I worked with worked as a team and allowed me to help in the designing and delivery of the lesson rather than just assisting with their own lesson plan. They were open to new ideas that would help them achieve the lesson objectives more effectively and made the class more interesting.
From my supervisor at the board of education to my Japanese colleagues, home stay family and the other JET participants, everyone played an interesting and important role in helping me feel safe, comfortable, and grow as a person and a professional. I felt there was a strong support system available to me throughout my stay in Japan.
The real challenge is adjusting to life back home. Reverse culture shock is more difficult to handle in countries like India, where the number of JET participants is very small and JETAA is still in the beginning stages.
India has had only a handful of JET participants in the last decade. This made creating an ex-JET community a difficult proposition. However, after nearly a decade, two Indians, an ALT and a CIR, were given the opportunity to join the JET program in 2017. It is a fresh start, which I hope will open the gates for many brilliant young Indians to experience the beauty and culture of Japan.
Being an extremely small group of around 50 former JET participants, living in different parts of the world, bringing people together has always been a challenge. But for the last 2 years we have been actively trying to revive the connections.
The first step towards establishing the JETAA India chapter was taken by Divya Jha who was a JET in Fukuoka Prefecture from 2007 to 2008. Last year we were officially represented for the first time at the JET Programme 30th Anniversary Commemorative Ceremony held in Tokyo.
We have reconnected with all the Indian JET participants and are in touch regularly through mail, meetings, and events like the Japan festival which is organised by the Japanese Embassy. It has been a series of small steps, including meetings of small groups of former JET participants in local areas. But these steps are the beginning of what we envision to be the building blocks for a strong JETAA India chapter that will help spread awareness of Japanese culture and language in India. We aim to create a strong association that can provide guidance, support, and career counselling to new JET participants from India.
Indian and Japanese societies are guided by common cultural traditions including the heritage of Buddhism. This connection is one that I felt very strongly during my stay in Japan in the warm, open and caring gestures of the Japanese people, whenever they realised I was an ALT from India. I believe Indians on the JET Programme can add a lot of value to Japanese communities.
Thanks to being trilingual, sharing similar social and cultural values, and having many similarities in our education systems, Indian JET participants can better understand the needs of Japanese society and students. Being multilingual gives us a better understanding of the challenges of Japanese students and helps us to make learning English and learning about a new culture more fun and easy for the students. The knowledge of Japanese culture and language enables us to connect and contribute to the larger community and strengthen the ties between the two countries.
At present the number of Indian JET participants on the Programme is limited, but we hope that more opportunities will come in the future. We at JETAA India are hopeful that the centuries-old ties between India and Japan will be further strengthened through our stronger presence on the JET Programme.
Rose Tanasugarn, Former Shimane Prefecture ALT, 1990-1993 and 2003-2006
The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme Alumni Association of Western Japan (JETAAWJ) successfully hosted a film festival at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art on November 18, 2017. There were about 50 attendees.
With support from the Hyogo International Association (HIA), the Hyogo Chapter of the United Nations Association of Japan, and the Kobe International Center for Cooperation and Communication (KICC), JETAAWJ screened ten award-winning videos from the 2016 JET Video contest, plus two videos that were submitted by a Hyogo JET.
The highlight of the afternoon was the documentary ‘Live Your Dream: the Taylor Anderson Story’, which followed a video message from Mr. Andy Anderson, Taylor’s father. Taylor and Monty Dickson were two JET participants who lost their lives in the March 2011 tsunami. Donations were collected from the audience and \41,000 was raised for the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund (TAMF). TAMF continues to organise activities for Tohoku children, strengthen bonds between the US and Japan, and install memorial reading corners at schools in the Tohoku region.
JETAAWJ was honoured to have Mr. Kevin O’Driscoll, Vice Consul at the US Consulate General Osaka-Kobe, at the screening. Congratulating the JET Program on its 30 anniversary, Mr. O’Driscoll said: “These types of programs can both promote cultural exchange and enrich the lives of students and teachers alike. I can think of no better example of how a JET can positively impact the lives of those around them than that of Taylor Anderson. Despite language and cultural barriers, Taylor was able to forge connections with people in a country she truly loved. Taylor’s legacy continues today through the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund.”
Another invited guest was Mr. Steve Corbett, Programme Coordinator at CLAIR, who was acquainted with Taylor during his time as an ALT in Ishinomaki. “I was honoured to participate in JETAA Western Japan’s inaugural JET Film Festival. It was a great opportunity to highlight the connections made by JET participants and alumni with their communities in Japan. The JET videos show the love each participant has for their locality. ‘Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story’ is an especially touching example of the bridges built between Japan and the dozens of countries around the world represented by JET participants. I was pleased by the turnout and thrilled that JETAA Western Japan was able to raise money for the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund. I hope this becomes an annual event and even more people have the opportunity to learn about the bonds JET helps to create.”
Volunteers included JET alumni, current JET participants and members of the community. Mr. Tomo Matsuda, a college student who volunteered through HIA, remarked ‘The short films taught me about another side of Japan. If I have a chance, I’d like to take part in future JET program events as a volunteer’.
Ms. Louise Dendy, Chair of JETAA Western Japan, added ‘In preparing for the event we received much support from our co-organisers, HIA, the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, and our supporters at KICC, which was a testament to the willingness of local organisations to encourage exchange between Japanese and non-Japanese communities such as JET. It was a fantastic opportunity for not only current and former JET participants, but also the Japanese community to be reminded of how many lives are touched by the JET Programme. It also highlighted how people around the world came together in the tragic 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. I am delighted that we raised over 40,000 yen for the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund that will be put towards projects benefitting the affected area’.
Mr. Mitsuki Shimada, Director of HIA’s International Affairs Promotion Department concluded, ‘Through JETAA Western Japan’s initiative, I was really happy that HIA and the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art were able to be co-organisers of this event to celebrate the JET Program’s 30th anniversary. The event was really meaningful and enjoyable as it brought together Japanese people and foreigners of Kobe and Hyogo and allowed them to interact during the film festival and the reception afterwards. The videos clips showed the beauty of various parts of Japan through the perspective of the JET participants who have discovered the charms of rural Japan and the beautiful mountain and ocean views, things that Japanese people perhaps take for granted. These videos really demonstrated the love that JET participants have for Japan, as did the documentary which keeps Taylor Anderson’s memory alive. JET participants are not simply language teachers at schools or employees at city halls and prefectural offices. They inspire young Japanese to spread their wings and to become global citizens, while also helping to broaden perspectives and making them aware of the many possibilities the future holds. In addition, JET participants are able to share the lifestyle and culture of their local communities with the outside world. I am truly grateful for the JET Program. This event helped me realise that JET participants are ‘exceedingly effective ambassadors’. They are key persons in helping make Japan a multicultural society. I would like to make Japanese people more aware of JETs and their activities and I hope that we can continue to hold international events such as this’.
Some audience members were so moved by the documentary that they contacted JETAA Western Japan officers to express interest in holding their own screenings next spring. As Mr. Andy Anderson said in his video message, ‘Screenings of Live Your Dream help all of us to remember Japan, remember Tohoku and the many lives that were lost on 3/11. Keep Tohoku in your hearts as both Taylor and Monty did. It is up to us to continue the bridge building they both so deeply believed in. We appreciate your donations to TAMF and are so thankful to have JET alumni support. I encourage you all to live your dreams!’
Monica Yuki, Former Saitama Prefecture ALT, 2002-2004
2017 marks the 30th Anniversary of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET Program). The Japanese government-funded grassroots exchange program has employed over 66,000 college graduates from around the world to work in the public school system and local government offices while living in Japan. For many of us, this was a life changing experience, whether it was to continue a career in teaching, working in translation, finding a job in diplomacy, or just experiencing, firsthand, the exhilaration of living in Japan.
We’re an extremely diverse and varied group, but what we all have in common is that the JET Program was an epic chapter in our lives. To honour this milestone in true JET fashion, over 300 people gathered together in a large celebration of alumni, family and friends in the very city that began the JET Alumni Association of the United States (JETAA USA). The alumni association was started by a few participants in Washington DC who saw the value in continuing their bond with Japan, to strengthen the program for years to come. In the past 30 years, JETAA USA has grown to include 19 chapters that support over 32,000 alumni in all 50 states.
The commemoration took place at the Omni Shoreham in Washington, DC, from the 4th to the 6th of August 2017. In tune with the anniversary, the celebration was called JET30 Reunion and presented by USJETAA, our national nonprofit organisation. The JET30 Reunion was the perfect setting to fulfil its mission to Reconnect, Celebrate and Reminisce, looking back over the past 30 years, and making plans to grow and continue being the most successful grassroots exchange program in the world. With over 300 alumni in attendance from across the world including Brazil, Canada, Japan, and Jamaica, it was the marquee event of the year!
The JET30 Reunion was a three day event that offered guests multiple opportunities to reconnect with Japan and share experiences with fellow alumni. Whether it was just last year or 30 years ago, there was plenty to be shared about our times in Japan!
The event began on Friday with guests visiting Natsukashii Hall. The hall was filled with images of Japan, a beautifully giant torii gate, and a slideshow of photos that were taken by alumni while in Japan. All 19 JET alumni chapters created display boards that showcased the amazing work they currently do in their local areas. We’re so very grateful to the local Japan-related organisations in Washington DC who hosted exhibits that included traditional Japanese woodworking, tea ceremony, origami folding, martial arts and so much more. Not only could guests participate in these familiar traditions, but they could also share them with their families and next generations.
On Friday afternoon, we gathered for the Welcome Remarks from Paige Cottingham-Streater, Chair of USJETAA and one of the founders of JETAA in the United States. She was joined by Masahiro Fukukawa, Executive Consultant of CLAIR, who travelled from Tokyo for this event, and Atsuyuki Oike, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Japan. These remarks were followed by a wonderful panel of prominent alumni who discussed the topic, ‘Strengthening U.S.-Japan Relations 1987 to 2017’. This was followed by a presentation by Professor Emily Metzgar, alumna and author of The JET Program and the U.S.-Japan Relationship: Goodwill Goldmine.
By Friday evening guests had all arrived, and were invited to a special reception hosted at the Japanese Ambassador’s beautiful residence with other distinguished guests and prominent members of the U.S.-Japan community in Washington DC. We dined on delicious Japanese food, visited the tea house on the premises, and enjoyed catching up and meeting new alumni friends. I was honoured with the invitation to speak at the reception and was able to do so in front of so many of the alumni I have had the pleasure of working with across the country at various JETAA events. Having spent over the past 12 years as an active alum, this has become one of the highlights of my time as a JETAA USA representative.
Saturday was an incredible and full day of socialising, presentations, eating, games and more celebrations. We began with a networking breakfast where participants were seated according to their years on JET. This encouraged alumni to share stories during their time on the JET Program, and included a presentation, ‘Looking Back and Moving Forward: JET in Perspective’. This was followed by an engaging panel discussion on ‘Investing in Change’ with a group of established alumni who work for the State Department, US Department of Treasury, the World Bank, and more.
The Japan American Society joined in on the fun by hosting a Japan Bowl Quiz where alumni were tested on their Japanese skills, geography, movie trivia, pop culture and more. During the networking lunch, alumni changed seats and shuffled around to prefecture-based tables. I heard countless stories of people meeting others from their hometown, including someone who worked at the same schools but many years apart. We heard stories of alumni who were friends back when the Internet and social media weren’t quite so prevalent, reconnecting and finding each other. Afterwards, we listened to a panel on ‘Engaging and Enriching Diverse Communities’.
That Saturday afternoon, we offered three breakout sessions where prominent and established alumni within specific fields spoke on panels that covered topics such as ‘JET: The Next 30 Years’, ‘Making the Network Work’, and ‘JETs Educating the Next Generation’. The final presentation of the day was on ‘Traditions and Tales: Spotlight on Japanese Culture’.
The long day wrapped up with a fabulous Natsu Matsuri outside on the terrace lit by Japanese lanterns. Guests dressed up in their yukata, jinbei and happi coats and used fans with the JET30 logo to stay cool in the hot Washington DC summer evening. The evening began with a kampai toast by Laurel Lukaszewski, USJETAA Executive Director, using special commemorative cedar sake cups etched with the JET30 logo. The winners of the many raffle prizes which included two flights to Japan courtesy of ANA Airlines, were announced. One of the highlights of the evening was the Moth(ra) Storytelling, where alumni shared stories from their JET experience, which was hosted by Steven Horowitz, the founder of JETwit.
This year’s JETAA USA National Conference was held in conjunction with the JET30 Reunion, starting two days prior to the celebration. Contributing valuable insight on their local chapters and activities, two JET alumni representatives from each of the 19 chapters in the US, including Hawaii and Alaska, were on hand. This year, we focused on strengthening many of the base foundations of chapters including finances, membership and leadership. We also spent time discussing the growing number of sub-chapters across the country.
The JET30 Reunion wrapped up on Sunday with many exclusive optional excursions, including a tour of the Discovery Communications Headquarters, a private tour of the Japanese collection at the Library of Congress, a guided walking tour by DC Ranger to learn about the donated cherry trees, and a tour/tasting at the District Distillery.
It was an amazing whirlwind weekend, jam packed with reunions of old friends and the amazing experience of making many new ones. A huge thank you to the 30+ JET Alumni volunteers from across the country for their countless hours in helping make this event a huge success. This event would not have been possible without the generous support from the Japanese Embassy, CGP, CLAIR and JLGC New York, Sachiko Kuno Foundation, U.S. Japan Foundation, JCAW, ANA and many individual donors.
I encourage all alumni to stay in contact with their local chapter, helping to support the next generation of JET participants and continuing to strengthen the US-Japan relationship in your local area. And, register with USJETAA’s online alumni directory on its website at USJETAA.org. We hope we have even more to celebrate at our next milestone reunion!
Bane Srdjevic, Former Miyazaki Prefecture ALT, 2013-2014
My name is Bane Srdjevic, I was a Miyazaki prefectural ALT teaching at Sadowara High School between 2013 and 2014. Originally I’m from the USA; Chicago to be exact. Windy City, masters of deep dish pizza, and losing football teams. I’m Serbian by blood (fluent in the language too), and like to think of myself as a Jack of all trades in training. Currently I am a software consultant working on projects for Facebook, and I own a small business called Lock Chicago, an escape room in Chicago. But considering that I graduated from Purdue in 2012 with a degree in creative writing, this is not the most obvious outcome you’d expect from the resume.
My first job outside of university was as a professional blogger, a loosely structured job that allowed me the freedom to figure out what I wanted to do professionally while paying off my student loans. While writing click-bait articles for clients ranging from biodiesel engine manufacturers to dentists was fun, explaining why ‘Dating Taylor Swift is More Dangerous than a Stun Gun’ wasn’t really what I had in mind when I envisioned myself as a writer. So I decided to shake things up and head to Japan for a change of scenery by entering the JET Programme.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one in that boat; my situation was very similar to many of my fellow ALTs. I quickly discovered that one of the core natures of the JET Programme was being a stopgap for many people who hadn’t figured out where they were headed but had decided to figure it out proactively rather than wishing and waiting. About 6 months into my program I started thinking about what I’d do after I returned to the States. I knew from the start that I’d only be staying in Japan for a year, and I knew that I didn’t want to continue my professional blogging when I got back, so I reached out to some friends and asked them what they would recommend as a career that was both creative and technical. The surprising answer I didn’t expect to hear was computer programming.
A creative writing undergraduate program doesn’t lend you much exposure to programming or computer science, so my knowledge was limited. To me it was a bunch of 1+1=2 and ‘If X then Y’, which didn’t sound very fun or creative. I had tried some HTML and CSS way back when, but it definitely wasn’t for me. But my friends painted a different picture, explaining that programming was like having a million puzzle pieces with which to solve a problem that had a million solutions, and your creativity showed in the way you put the pieces together. An interesting take; they’d intrigued me.
I got a free account on coursera.org, a website that provides free online classes from professors and experts on anything from programming to music theory. I signed up for a class that taught me how to create a basic Asteroids game in Python, a popular coding language. I was surprised by how much fun I had with it, but I definitely didn’t want to go back for another 4 years of school and $100k+ in student debt. My friends came through again and recommended I look up a programming bootcamp that teaches you the core skills needed to be employable, get your foot in the door, and have your career after that be your schooling. I was sold on that and started looking into what Chicago had to offer.
DevBootcamp (though no longer around) was the program I decided to participate in. Most major cities have a large variety of bootcamps to choose from, ranging from mobile development to web development and even cyber security. DevBootcamp was a 4-month intensive web development program that brought you on-site for 2 of those months, all day every day, to really drill the core principles of web development into you. I signed up and enrolled in classes that started the day after I got back from Japan. It was tough, but 4 months later I had completed it, and a month after that I had started my first job as a web developer.
Work was great and I really enjoyed programming. I knew I had figured out what I wanted to do for my career, but I also realised that my career wasn’t the only thing that I wanted to do. My training as a developer woke up a creative restlessness in me and I needed to find an outlet for it, which is why I decided to start the escape room. A friend had mentioned escape rooms to me first when I was in Japan, she had done one in California and decided to open one of her own up in Manhattan, Kansas (Locked Manhattan). It was a fairly low risk business to start up and what could be more fun than designing giant puzzles? Nothing, that’s what! So I got started.
The idea of starting a business was daunting. Can I be a business owner? That seemed like something for other people, for entrepreneurs, for people who owned businesses. The learning curve was tough to scale, but once I broke the tasks down piece by piece and starting checking them off, it didn’t seem like a lot of work. It just seemed like something to do. Like filling out letter bubbles on a standardised test. I just kept doing the work and things kept happening because of it. It was a revelation, it turns out just doing things is how you get things done.
After a few months we opened up and have been going strong for almost 2 years now. We opened up in a new location with more space and a storefront, along with larger rooms and higher ceilings (very important things when it comes to shoving people into a confined space for an hour at a time). I moved to a new and more exciting job from my first programming gig after about 14 months (not before taking a month-long vacation to go visit some friends from the JET Programme) and have just been doing things ever since.
When anyone asks me for advice on figuring out their next step, what their goal should be, or how to fulfil their dream, I tell them to just keep doing things. It might not be your dream, but a dream isn’t the only thing you can do in life. If you play basketball does that mean you can’t play any other sport? Everything you do is just skill gathering, and your dream doesn’t have to be the only thing you do. Doing things leads to opportunities to do even more things. The more people you meet, the more things you can say you’ve done, the more eyes you catch, and the more people reach out to you. At a certain point, if you do enough you won’t have to look for things to do ever again; people will approach you with all the exciting opportunities you could ever want.
Amy Sherman, Former Okinawa Prefecture ALT, 2006-2008
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
When I was young, adults would often ask me this question. At six years old, I would tell people that I wanted to own a shoe store. I just loved the smell of new shoes. By thirteen, I was telling anyone who asked that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. As my teenage years passed, however, I grew less and less certain about my future career.
I had never pictured myself as an educator, but my time teaching with the JET Programme sparked my interest in the field. Between the excitement of kindergartners when I arrived at school in the morning and the squeals of ‘Amy-sensei!’ whenever my students spotted me out in the community, I realized that there was something special about my job. I was able to use my daily life as an opportunity for cross-cultural connection and communication. Aside from teaching English vocabulary and grammar, I was also teaching my students to become more open-minded about people who seem to be different. In return, I felt like I had learned as much from my JET experience as my students had.
When it became time to return home to the United States, I considered my options. Even though I did not have a clear idea about my career path, I recognized that I needed a plan for finding employment after my JET contract ended. Instead of finding specific jobs that I wanted, I spent time researching potential employers. I considered which employers offered long-term career potential while matching with my skills and interests, and I read reviews about whether companies received high ratings from their employees. With a handful of companies in mind, I decided that I would apply for any job with these companies as a way to get my foot in the door.
Before I had a chance to apply for any of those jobs, however, I discovered and applied for an amazing opportunity. A university had partnered with the public school system in my hometown to recruit and train new teachers. This program paid for a master’s degree in education, which would be completed in the evenings while the participant worked full-time as a teacher. Since university tuition is so expensive in the United States, it had not occurred to me that I could go back to school to earn my teaching certification. After being accepted into the program as a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), I realized how fortunate I was to have the financial support that would allow me to continue a career in a field directly related to my JET Programme experience.
Shortly after beginning my role as an ESOL teacher at an elementary school, I thought about how my teaching had changed since my time in Japan. Armed with new knowledge about how to plan lessons, teach, and assess student progress, I recognized that the quality of my teaching had grown significantly. I developed the ability to teach the English language and academic content at the same time, allowing my students to improve their language skills while learning the grade-level curriculum. In the United States, my students were hungry to learn English, frustrated by how difficult it was to communicate and learn in an English-speaking environment. I appreciated how much of an impact an ESOL teacher could make on the lives and education of children who were trying to make sense of the English they were immersed in all day long.
Throughout my years as an ESOL teacher, I have continued to seek out and take advantage of opportunities to further my career. Recognizing the importance of continued education, I completed as many graduate courses as time would allow, with the support of grants and tuition reimbursement from my employer. In addition to continuing my formal education, I have also focused on other opportunities for professional development. Instead of staying at home during school vacations, I spent three summers training English teachers in China with an organization called Sino-American Bridge for Education and Health (SABEH). I discovered that many organizations offer a variety of grants for educators. Although my applications have been turned down more often than they have been accepted, I have received several professional development grants, which have allowed me to travel abroad to learn firsthand about the countries and languages of my students. Seeking out these opportunities took time, but being able to reconnect with the cross-cultural learning I experienced during the JET Programme was invaluable.
My most recent experience with taking advantage of opportunities has led me to change school systems to become the lead ESOL teacher at an elementary school. Each experience throughout my career has helped me to grow and develop professionally and personally. No one knows for sure when opportunities will come along. The best advice I can offer is to be flexible and open to new experiences. My career path is unlikely to lead me towards opening the shoe store that I dreamed about as a child, but I am excited to find out what opportunity will come along next.
Lindsey Rose Black, Former Tokushima Prefecture ALT, 2013-2014
Just over four years ago, I got off a (very small!) plane in Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku and hopped in a car headed for my ALT placement in Mugi Town. It was about a three-hour drive from the main city (plenty of time to suddenly learn Japanese, right?) and, aside from my JTE occasionally pointing out shrines or monkeys hiding in trees, the ride along the coast was silent.
Silence—not good or bad—but vast, came to define my year as an ALT in Mugi. I learned enough Japanese to get by (and also became a master of charades), but no one in my little town really spoke fluent English. Outside of teaching classes, hitting up the city to hang with other JET participants, and expertly-timed Skype sessions with family back home, I was more or less mute. This was maybe the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
My whole grandeur vision of becoming one with the universe and meditating every day amongst rice paddies when I marked ‘rural’ on my JET application wore off in about four days of actually being in rural Japan, and the silence was consuming. I started writing every day not because I wanted to, but out of straight-up lonely human necessity. And over the course of that incredible, challenging, beautiful year, I fell in love with it.
After deciding not to renew my ALT contract, I got serious about figuring out how to pursue a writing career back home. Turns out, if you want to get paid for writing and generally being creative, a good wifi connection is the gatekeeper to your dreams.
I scanned career pages for the editorials I loved, hit up writing-focused job search websites (two great ones for the United States are MediaBistro and ed2010!), and started a food- and travel-focused blog to build up portfolio samples. For any of you hitting a roadblock with writing jobs requiring samples and not having samples because you don’t have a writing job… blog, blog, blog, and then blog some more!
Once my contract ended, I took a leap of faith and moved to New York City (well okay, outer Brooklyn), to pursue full-time writing and social media positions. I’ve since had the huge privilege to work for companies including VaynerMedia, Condé Nast, Bustle, and e.l.f. Cosmetics. Currently in the middle of another gulp-inducing moment, I just launched my own marketing agency, Rose Gold Creative and am slowly building up the client list. It’s taken a ton of submissions (and plenty of rejection letters!) to get to this point, but I can’t imagine not getting to wake up and create something new every day.
If this is the kind of future you might want after JET, get quiet, find your inner Mugi (and some wifi), and get writing.