Nippon no pan ja nai!

Background on the JET process

I've been wanting for awhile to post about the lengthy and somewhat grueling process that led us to this point. I hope that someday this blog (or even just this post) can be helpful to someone, like the many JET participant blogs and vlogs Eric and I read/watched along the way! One blog post by a JET applicant about preparing for the interview was particularly helpful, so this post is an explanation for all readers who may be interested and a kind of thank you to all the JETs whose blogs benefited us and got us here today!

I realize it's ridiculously long, so feel free to skip it if you're really just here for the awesome pictures!

STAGE ONE: Thinking and praying

Eric and I spent time even before we got married talking about how much we wanted to go to Japan one day. We even set up a savings account for a vacation there. As time went on, though, we realized that we wouldn't be satisfied with just a short trip. If we went on a two- or three-week vacation, we'd just come home frustrated we couldn't stay longer! A number of years ago, we were at the Japan Festival held yearly in Arlington Heights. Some former JETs had a table there and gave us some information about JET and answered a few of our questions. I think this was truly the planting of the seed that would lie dormant for a little while, at least for me. Eric already knew about JET through a blog he followed, but this was my first exposure to the program, and it stuck with both of us and came up a lot in conversation. At some point, those conversations turned serious, accompanied with lots of prayer about what direction we should take with this idea that had been presented to us. In the fall of 2011, before I went back to school, we spent most of a day in prayer and exploration of JET and other possible options that might get us to Japan for longer than just a vacation.

STAGE TWO: Planning and praying

That day of prayer didn't yield any immediate results, but as with all prayer, it was answered! By the beginning of the following school year, meaning the fall of 2012, Eric and I decided that we would indeed apply to the JET program. (Can I add that that simple sentence represents a whole world of if's, and's, but's, fears, worries, and doubts? Simply getting to the point of applying was a BIG DEAL. And I mean BIG.) We talked over every possibility: What if both of us made it but we were stationed far from each other? What if only one of us made it? What if neither of us made it? Would that mean God wasn't leading us to Japan? Would we try again the following year, as many JET applicants do when their first attempt doesn't work out? In the midst of those talks, we kept checking the JET Web site, awaiting the day when the application would be available. Finally, around September or October, the app went up, and we got to work!

STAGE THREE: Applying and praying

The JET application is, in my opinion, more rigorous than any application I ever filled out for colleges, jobs coming out of college, grad school, or any school district I applied to after completing my master's. It requires two letters of recommendation; I strongly advise anyone applying to consider very carefully whom you ask to write these!! You want really strong ones from people who know you well and can vouch for your skills, whether as an educator, someone with international experience, or whatever aspects of yourself you're trying to stress. The "question answering/filling in blanks" part of the application isn't necessarily hard, but it certainly is thorough and requires you to gather a lot of information! If you're still in college or just coming out of college, as most JET applicants are, you may not have tons of information about classes you've taken and professional development you've done; if you've been teaching for seven years and in the working world for four more years, however, you may have TONS of education to enter into those blanks! Same goes with transcripts; someone just finishing college might have three or four transcripts, if they went to more than one college or took classes at different colleges while attending their main school. Someone with not only a master's degree but tons of graduate-level classes could have ten or fifteen to gather! (And that costs quite a bit of money to get all those transcripts, too.) So with the deadline looming before us, we followed the incredibly exacting instructions for the letters of recommendation, the transcripts, the two-page essay (also very challenging for someone as wordy as I am), the application itself, and the proper number of copies of everything. Exhausting, huh? This process is not for the faint of heart. You've really got to want it.

STAGE FOUR: Interviewing and praying

Thinking back to the weeks of waiting to see if we'd gotten an interview, that time was like a wonderful dream!! The only stress we were under was just waiting and wondering... Ahh...! I miss those days. :) All along the way, we lifted up this entire experience in prayer, asking for direction, guidance, and clear leading on how we should proceed, whatever the outcome. We knew that if neither of us got an interview, then this year's progress toward our dream of Japan would be on hold, maybe for good. Finally, around the end of January, I got the long-awaited email: I had been granted an interview! I requested a personal day and set up my interview on a Friday. I honestly had no idea what it would be like, except that our good friend had warned me that these interviews are tough!! She told me that the judges often try to frazzle the interviewees with tough or puzzling questions in order to see how they respond under pressure, like the pressure you're sure to face in a foreign classroom with forty kids staring up at you! So I went in fairly warned, and to increase my level of knowledge of what to expect and what to wear, I looked up JET blogs and found one in particular that was truly excellent. This JET listed a bunch of sample questions, things to consider, things to study in advance (like your own essay and letters of recommendation so you could speak intelligently about them!) **NOTE: You're not technically supposed to have seen your letters of recommendation, but my two fabulous writers were kind enough to send me copies after they were turned in. ;) If you can't read yours, don't worry about it. So I began asking myself these practice questions, going over them with Eric, and going over them with a marvelous co-worker with lots of international and overseas teaching experience. One piece of advice from the blog I ignored; the writer said that as you get closer to the interview, you should pretty much put your TV shows, movies, and video games on hold in order to prepare better, because you're not going to get into that room with the panel of judges staring at you and wish you'd spent more time catching up on Mad Men. Well, I see her point, but for me, continuing with the activities that relax me and in some strange way still keep me focused on the task at hand was absolutely essential. I needed those things! Otherwise, I really would have driven myself crazy with preparing and working too hard. So we kept up with Guild Wars 2, Doctor Who, Grimm, and whatever other media we were consuming at the time, albeit in slightly lesser doses!

Before the interview, I had to buy a suit. This really wasn't something I was looking forward to. As an elementary school teacher, I just don't have much occasion to rock a suit. Plus, my approach is usually: How far down can I dress for this particular occasion and still get away with it?? But of course, in the case of JET, the answer to that question is always: about as far down as you'd dress for a wedding, corporate job interview, or a night at the opera! So I had to step it up. I called on a friend yet again, and this helpful soul went shopping with me and we picked out a really nice suit jacket. I already had a passable top to wear underneath, pants, and shoes. Done and done.

I originally thought I would drive down to the interview, which was on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, right near Water Tower place. So, since that's a super fancy part of town, I changed my mind after getting advice from a few people and decided to take the train. (This was an excellent choice, BTW!! If you live far enough away from your interview location where you can choose between public transportation and driving yourself, go with public. It will cost you less and generally be less stressful.)

The interview itself wasn't nearly as tough as I'd been prepared for. There was a panel of three judges. I'm not 100% certain of their relationship to JET, but I believe there's at least one JET alum and one person associated with the Japanese consulate in each panel. I won't steal the thunder of the other JET whose blog post was so helpful to me by giving you more sample questions, but I will just say that one question related directly to a letter written by one of my references, one really threw me for a loop, and one wasn't asked that I was certain would be!! What I mean by that is that there was something I mentioned in both my application and my essay that I was certain would come up in the interview, but it was never even touched on. So that was interesting! I walked out of there feeling like the interviewers had been nice and we'd had a decent chat, but in general I did not feel I had wowed them. I knew I wasn't their typical applicant, but I knew I had lots to recommend me, and I knew I'd done my best. That was about all I could say with confidence over dinner with Eric that night.

STAGE FIVE: Getting the news and praying

OK, if you're still with me, we're almost to the present day! The interview was in February. I knew that I probably wouldn't hear anything back until April. After what I felt had been a lackluster interview, I just wasn't sure what to expect. Did I seem good enough on paper to get the interview, but then fail to represent well to the panel? Had the interview gone better than I thought? You can imagine the conversations we had during this time of uncertainty! When I saw an email from JET in my inbox at the end of March (sooner than expected), I couldn't even open it! Eric came to sit next to me, and I was like, "What should I do?" "Open it!!!" So I clicked, saw the words "we are pleased to inform you," and immediately burst into tears! Now we knew what the coming months would look like for us. We finally had our clear direction and leading.

This is when the real work began! Think the application process was tough? That was kiddie camp compared to what came next! Since most JET applicants are fresh out of college, most of them don't have all that many loose ends to tie up. For anyone older and more established in their life and career, I warn you: YOU HAVE WAY MORE LOOSE ENDS THAN YOU THINK YOU DO. Here's an example of what Eric and I had to tackle after receiving the news:
-Requesting a leave of absence from my school district and waiting for it to be voted on by the school board
-Deciding how and when Eric should tell his company that he'd be leaving
-Getting a renter for our home (far and away the most stressful task)
-Selling two cars (and meeting with a lawyer to give family members power of attorney to sell one of them when it didn't sell in time)
-Selling or donating about 75% of our worldly possessions
-Making about 1,000 phone calls to cancel things, change things, or inform people of things
-Sending about 5,000 emails for the same reasons
-Finding out about 6,000 things didn't know or hadn't considered
-Signing about 7,000 forms

...and that's just the administrative side of all this!! Forget about the very emotional part of having to tell all my dear students I'd be missing a year with them, telling our friends and family, telling our church, telling our beloved girls at the jail, and telling our neighbors! None of these things are easy or painless. I hope you can see that doing something like JET, especially at the stage of life we're in, is not something to be entered into lightly. As I recently told my parents, "I didn't have half this much stress about my own wedding!"

STAGE SIX: Getting on the plane and praying

As I write this, I'm flying over Alaska at 36,000 feet. I've been in the air for about 4 and a half hours and still have a long way to go! On some level, reality still hasn't sunk in yet that this is really happening and we're really doing this. Did I really just leave everything familiar for an entire year at least?! Am I even remotely ready to be in a place where I can say about 4 sentences, few of which are all that practical in daily survival? ("The dog is under the table," anyone??) So that's where we are today. I look forward to taking a leaf out of the book of a wonderful missionary couple we know and writing another post one year from now, looking back at all the things that seemed so novel, so weird, or so unusual at the beginning that by then will be old hat to us. What will surprise us the most? What will we wish someone had told us? What will we have eaten that will gross everyone at home out?? Okinawa awaits us. This is only the beginning!