Backtrack #17: Bridges Were Built (Jessica Shepherd, Matsuyama Central SHS ALT, 2011-2015)

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What’s your name, when and where was your placement, and where are you from originally?

My name is Jessica Shepherd, and I was placed in Ehime on the island of Shikoku from 2011 to 2015. I am originally from Quebec, Canada and am currently residing there now. Matsuyama was my first choice for placement, and I was lucky enough to get it. Actually, it was my fiancé at the time who chose Matsuyama. I was happy to go anywhere in Japan since each place had its interesting features. He wanted to walk the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage during our time in Japan and living in a big city on Shikoku would also allow him to find a job in his domain: French cooking and pastries. It was such a great placement! It has everything you want in a big city (500 000 people) with all the charm of country life. He did end up walking the pilgrimage and I could join him on weekends. One of the best experiences of our lives.

How did you find out about JET, and what led you to apply?

I found out about JET in CEGEP (a type of middle school in between high school and university in Quebec). My physics teacher was telling our class about his time on JET in the late 80’s early 90’s and spoke fondly of that experience. I had always wanted to visit Japan since I had fallen in love with the Japanese Botanical Gardens in Montreal as a child. Also, I was heading to university in TESL (teaching English as a second language) to become an English teacher and thought how amazing it would be to merge my upcoming English teaching profession with living in Japan. So, 4 years later, after attending many job fairs and talks that spoke of JET and making sure this was something I really wanted, I applied and got accepted. I could fulfill that goal upon graduation.

What did you hope to achieve on JET, and did that change during your time here?

I really wanted to gain some teaching experience. I understood that being an ALT meant I wouldn’t be leading my own classrooms, but I would gain valuable insight through working with many different JTEs. I wanted to return to Canada after at least two years with experience that would help me decide a path for my masters studies in education, all the while living in a different culture that I had admired from a distance.

Turns out, I had 8 different schools, including two schools with students for special needs and within that spectrum, often ended up being the main teacher for many classes. I even came up with a yearly curriculum for the debate class in one of my academic schools. I also ended up being way more involved in extra-curriculars and the community than I expected: English clubs, English camps, English recitation contests, private French tutoring (I’m a native French speaker),  pottery, flower arrangement, Iaido, sake sommeliering, marathon running, dance classes, photography, town festivals, … I ended up staying four years, if only to keep my door open to reapply some day, which isn’t possible by staying five, or at least that was the case back in the day. Read your contracts!

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What is your lasting impression of the work you did on JET and the communities you were part of?

I feel like bridges were built. I gave a lot of myself to my friends and colleagues in Japan and loved the work I did. At the same time, I think it’s the reason I brought back so much of Japan back with me to Canada. I enjoyed being involved with the executive committee of JETAA in my province as well as helping the local JET Desk with the promotion and training of hopeful and successful JET candidates. I’ve also introduced sake to many people through my work as a certified sake sommelier. With the help of the Furusato Vision Project, one way that I could maintain these bridges was by finding breweries in Ehime open to exportation. The pandemic has put a damper on this project for now, but it is still in my plans to bring Ehime sake to my province. Otherwise, many colleagues and students ended up visiting Canada, and I was happy to reconnect. I can’t wait to return and visit Japan once more. It’s been 6 years since my return to my home country and I am still in touch with so many people from my second home.

Where did JET lead you?

On JET, I gained experience teaching many different types of communities and this helped guide me into figuring out what kind of teacher I wanted to be. Overall, it was teaching students with special needs during my time on JET that struck a chord in me.

After graduating from my masters, I went on to teach French as a second language to students with special needs. I found my calling.

Right now, some incoming JETs have been delayed by more than a year, and are in the difficult position of choosing to indefinitely wait for Japan to open up or to give up on coming here. Do you have any comments or advice for them during this time?

If your motivation for going to Japan has not changed, go for it. Of course, circumstances can always change quickly, but if you can wait, it would be worth it. Communities are currently shut off from the world. Once the world opens up again, the E in JET will be that much more meaningful and impactful. During this time, enjoy your time in your home country, and if possible spend time (even if at a distance) with loved ones. Until your local JET authorities reach out to you, enjoy the time you have at home without worrying about missing the plane, so to speak. You can always brush up on your Japanese if you really want to.

If you had been in their position, do you think you would have gone on JET if you’d been in limbo for a year?

Definitely. My cohort year was 2011; the year of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. Needless to say, almost our entire year believed that the JET Program might be cancelled or postponed that year as notifications were delayed. At that moment, some people chose to do other things, and that was OK. When it came to me, I knew I would wait or even reapply the following year if needed. Finally, I only waited a few extra months to know whether or not I was leaving for Japan. Let’s hope the pandemic ends soon so JET hopefuls can get their shot at writing a new and exciting chapter.

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