Alumni Profile – Michelle K.

An interview with Michelle K, a 2013-2016 Kagoshima Prefecture JET CIR. Michelle is an Emergency Management Specialist for the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Public Assistance Program. 

Tell us a little bit about your current organization and your current position.

I work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Region 10, which oversees federal emergency management for 271 Tribal Nations and the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. After an event like a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or wildfire, communities need help to cover costs for debris removal, life-saving emergency protective measures, and restoring public infrastructure. I work as an Emergency Management Specialist for the FEMA Public Assistance Program, a program that provides supplemental grants to state, tribal, territorial, and local governments, and certain types of private non-profits so that communities can quickly respond to and recover from major disasters or emergencies.


How did you end up at your current position?

While on JET, I was drawn to the parts of my job pertaining to disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. I quickly found the capacity of human resilience and the level of cross-sector collaborations to be compelling. By my last year on JET, my experiences propelled me to further explore the world of emergency management and seek out relevant volunteer opportunities and certification courses. After returning to the U.S., I spent most of my time volunteering to gain experience and build my network while giving back to local communities. Thanks to volunteer opportunities through the American Red Cross and the Pacific Northwest JET Alumni Association, I got a job working with grant programs. Even after I got a job, I kept volunteering. Eventually, volunteering, grant work, and free or low-cost trainings gave me enough experience to qualify for positions in emergency management. Now, I work for an agency with a truly worthwhile mission.


What skills or experiences did you gain from the JET Program that helped you get to where you are now?

Due to Kagoshima City’s close proximity to Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanos, one of my primary responsibilities as a CIR was to assist with local evacuation simulations. During those simulations, I was able to observe the cross-sector collaboration required to be successful.  It made me appreciate all the different specialists involved in protecting lives and critical infrastructure which in turn made me curious about the world of emergency management. The additional role as a Prefectural Advisor (PA) granted me the opportunity to further develop the disaster preparedness information provided to new JETs at orientation. Over time, I grew more and more enthusiastic about encouraging new JETs to prepare themselves by researching local hazards, assembling go-bags, familiarizing themselves with evacuation routes, supporting bilingual evacuation instructions, and recognizing the different emergency alarms. I believe experiences like these coupled with working in international affairs introduced me to a career in helping people before, during, and after disasters. My experiences on JET also helped me develop key soft skills including interpersonal communication, adaptability, and problem-solving.


What advice would you give to JET participants or future JET applicants when it comes to establishing a career after JET?

Volunteer! Volunteer before, during, and after JET. Volunteering is incredibly versatile and flexible so anyone can do it: in-person or remote, hourly or monthly, inexperienced or experienced. It can be a great way to gain more experience and network in the field you are interested in, and try something completely new in a low-risk way. Volunteering overseas in particular can offer unique insight as to how organizations in a different country might operate, so it can definitely develop one’s skills in diplomacy and innovation.


What was your most memorable JET experience?

There are too many memories to easily pick only one, but I miss life with Sakurajima. Folks new to the area, JET and non-JET alike, initially find Sakurajima intimidating. The highly monitored, active volcano produces ash plumes up to thousands of feet high -which are sometimes accompanied by lightning. Despite this, people have found a way to coexist with the volcano. They use its fertile volcanic soil to grow the world’s largest radish (Sakurajima daikon) and the world’s smallest tangerines (Sakurajima komikan), develop special wind direction apps to determine whether or not to put the laundry out, recycle ‘hai’ (ash) using distinct sorting bags, and utilize the geothermal energy it generates for power. I think the most memorable aspect of Sakurajima, however, are its many glowing shades. Based on an excerpt from a short story by Kuniko Mukoda, it is said Sakurajima turns seven colors in a day. It is true. As the heart of the furusato, Sakurajima turns colors like ashen grey, bronze, amber, crimson, purple, sooty black, and pitch-dark black. One cannot help but long to see Sakurajima as soon as it is out of sight.