Backtrack #27: A Lightbulb Moment (Maura McCarthy, Uwajima SHS ALT, 2013-15)


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

My name is Maura McCarthy, and I had a placement in Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture.

I’m a military dependent, so I’m not from one place in particular– but I spent my last year of high school and undergraduate career in North Carolina before JET. I lived in Kanagawa prefecture for 3 years in high school (on a military base), so Japan was also a part of my upbringing in some ways. 

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

I found out about JET through a service-learning course I took on Intercultural Education. A portion of the course was spent learning about different job and career opportunities in the field of international education, and JET was highlighted as one of the strongest programs for teaching English to speakers of other languages. 

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

In the aforementioned course, I had a lightbulb moment and decided that I wanted to work toward a career in international education. My mentor suggested developing my language skills and spending more time independently in Japan to develop a deeper cultural understanding. It turned out to be very good advice, as I learned that my experience as a high schooler living in an American bubble (the base) was very different from living and working by myself in a fishing city I had never heard of before. Despite having initially applied for JET to work on my Japanese, I ended up losing my focus with actual language practice and spent most of my time learning how to be a better teacher. Of course, in time, my conversational Japanese did improve. Eventually, I started to see my unique experience and position in the Japanese education system as more valuable to my future career goals. During my second year in the program, I took the GRE and applied for graduate programs with a focus on international education. I believe my experience working in Japan was more valuable to me in those applications (and in future job applications) than my experience simply living in Japan. 

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

Given that every situation on JET is so different, I really feel that the impact and impressions left are from relationships made. Regardless of whether or not a student of mine went on to study English with a passion– they had the opportunity to connect with someone very different from themselves. I’m a firm believer that empathy and good character come from uncomfortable or awkward situations, or from being challenged to rethink your own preconceptions. I hope the impression I left is as positive as the impression that was left on me. 

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Where did JET lead you?

Eventually, my experience in the JET Program helped me gain acceptance into a Master’s Program in International Education and, subsequently, a career in Study Abroad. I worked for five years as an international programs coordinator at a large university and managed programs across the globe. As a part of my role, I also managed the inbound exchange program and met hundreds of international students, assisting them with their transition to American university life. At the start of the global pandemic, International Education became a challenging field to work in. I was lucky enough to maintain job security throughout the worst of program cancellations, but did turn to another passion (making ice cream) as a creative outlet to help with stress relief. Ultimately, I found more joy in my entrepreneurial efforts and ended my career (at least for now) in the field of higher education. I do still find myself painting my previous experiences into ice cream flavors to share with my local community, so I think it’s accurate to say that JET was a part of my journey to where I am now. I’ve made mikan-inspired sorbets that made me think about the mountain views picking mikan outside of Uwajima, and I’ve made Hojicha ice cream with black sesame cookies, which reminded me of the weekly tea time I spent with our Japanese eikaiwa teacher friend, Kay, and her daughter Saori. 

One of the biggest concerns for JETs is what they are going to do when they finish JET. Did your plans for after JET change during your time on JET, and if so, how?

Despite knowing WHY I wanted to go on JET, I did not know exactly what I wanted to do when I left until the last 6 months of my stay. Once I had made the decision to apply to grad school programs, I had to move quickly to schedule a flight to Osaka and study for the GRE to have a chance at being accepted. When I touched down in the US, I had only 2 weeks of “freedom” before my graduate program started. If you do have insight on your post-JET plans, it’s a good idea to start thinking about preparing for those early-on. If you don’t know what you want to do, see my advice below: 

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For JETs currently working out what they want to do when they finish, what advice would you give them?

This advice is coming from a person who did not take a break in between the JET Program and graduate school. Jumping straight from the JET program to another high-impact life experience can be challenging. Cultural adjustment is real. You might have trouble processing your experience, even if you keep yourself busy upon your return. My advice for JETs considering graduate school is not to make any moves until they’re absolutely certain that they know exactly what they want to study, why they want to study it, and what they’d like to do with the degree. Don’t go to graduate school because you don’t know what else you want to do, and don’t go to graduate school just because you aren’t sure what you want to do after JET. It’s okay to go home and adjust from your experience slowly if you have the means to support yourself or can stay with family and take on a part-time job. Not having something lined up immediately upon your return does not make you a failure. It’s going to be hard to imagine what life upon your return will be like until you experience it firsthand, so give yourself grace. Even if you think you have it figured out, wonderful things can come from you figuring out that you were wrong. 

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