An interview with Paul, a Minabe town, Wakayama prefecture JET Program alumni, who now works as a Senior Director for Cultural Vistas, a nonprofit exchange organization. Cultural Vistas handles over 30 unique exchange programs, reaching thousands worldwide in more than 130 countries around the world.
How did you end up working for Cultural Vistas?
Like so many other JET returnees, when I first got back from Japan I had an idea of where my interests lay, but wasn’t certain of the kinds of jobs that matched up with that. Something that really helped me figure this out was attending the “Welcome Back Reception,” hosted by the JET Office and the Embassy of Japan, where I was able to connect with a few JET alums working in international affairs and exchanges. They pointed me in the direction of a few nonprofits and programs like the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) that seemed to really fall in line with what I wanted to do. From there, I focused my job search and eventually got a job with Cultural Vistas in their J-1 visa department. About a year after, an internal posting with the IVLP team went out that I applied to and was selected for. As our department grew, a director position then opened up that I again successfully applied to. After over a year in that role, I was promoted up to my current position of Senior Director with a larger amount of program and oversight responsibilities.
How did your JET Program experience prepare you for your current position?
It was honestly a bit difficult at first to connect and translate the skills and experiences I gained on JET to a position, when I first returned. Many hiring managers look for concrete experiences directly linked to the field you’re applying for, which I didn’t quite have at first, but once I got my foot in the door, I noticed that what I gained and honed during JET really served to enhance my profile as I climbed the professional ranks. In the realm of international exchanges, not only was my international experience a big plus, but also skills related to cross-cultural communication and public speaking, leadership, adaptability and thinking under pressure, and research. Aside from teaching, I also sought out and participated in some professional exchanges with the Minabe Lion’s Club and Sister City Exchanges, effectively serving as a local culture and language ambassador for foreign visitors. This really helped me relate to the needs of international visitor groups and the components of what makes up an impactful exchange.
What is your most memorable JET Program experience?
This is a difficult one since there are so many memorable experiences to choose from! I think in this case, it has to be my first run-in with umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums). The town I was placed in, Minabe, is known for its ume (Japanese plums), yet I didn’t know what that was. On my very first lunch outing with my supervisor, Yamashita-san, I asked him about umeboshi and what it tastes like. He takes a small container on the table, opens it up, and says ‘This is umeboshi, please have one’. I take out a large umeboshi and put the whole thing into my mouth. As Yamashita-san looks on with a smile, the sour taste assails all my senses and my face puckers the hardest it’s ever puckered! Despite that first surprise encounter, I really enjoy umeboshi and was able to even partake of the packing and pickling process with one of the elementary schools where I taught.
What advice would you give to current and future JET Program Participants?
Stay curious, expand your circle of connections, be proactive in finding out what is needed or valued in reaching your desired career, and stay determined!