Jun 9

JQ Magazine: From JET to the U.S. Department of State, Alumni Share Their Stories


By Sheila Burt (Toyama-ken, 2010-12) for JQ magazine. Sheila is a scientific writer at the Center for Bionic Medicine, a research group located within the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She blogs about urban issues and Japan at www.sheilaburt.com, and writes the column “Letters from Japan” for Gapers Block. Follow her on Twitter @smburt.

Many of those who apply to the JET Program, and for several other teaching or translation positions in Japan, have a strong interest in international relations and diplomacy. But how does one transition from being eigo no sensei to a government career in the Foreign Service?

Via email, JQ reached out to three former ALTs who now work overseas for the U.S. Department of State to learn more about how they successfully made the big jump, and how their time in Japan influenced their respective careers.

Katrina Barnas, Consular Officer in Ecuador

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Katrina Barnas (Chiba-ken, 2001-02) holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University and a Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. After working for nine years in higher education administration at Columbia, she joined the Foreign Service in 2013 and recently started her first tour as a Consular Officer in Ecuador, where she assists American citizens in Ecuador and interviews other nationalities interested in traveling to the U.S. for tourism, study and work. She has also been an active member of the JETAA community, serving as vice president of the JET Alumni Association of New York (JETAANY) from 2005 to 2007, and then as a founding member of its board of directors from 2006 to 2011. Here, Barnas discusses how she applied to the JET Program on a whim—and how that decision ultimately shaped her future career path.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college. I had studied journalism but in my senior year, I was no longer sure that was the path I wanted to pursue. I liked traveling and children, so when some of my friends applied for JET I decided to apply as well. It is interesting to look back on it now since at the time I did not have a strong interest in Japan, but now I can’t imagine my life without a Japanese influence.

JET helped make my choice of joining the Foreign Service less daunting because I knew that I had done this before and succeeded. Through JET, I had experienced working in another country—getting beyond just a visit and belonging someplace very different from my hometown, and I knew that although it was going to be different that I could do it.

I stayed in Japan immediately after JET and worked through a Japanese local company for Toyota Motor Corporation as a writer and editor for their internal corporate communications magazine. I enjoyed the experience of working for a Japanese company with an American supervisor and researching stories, but I did not see it as a long-term place for me, so I returned to the U.S. to try to figure out what it was that I wanted to do with my life. Looking for a job was a job in itself. I sent out tons of resumes, talked to people, and searched online trying to figure out what my next step would be. I was still considering journalism and communications but did not know how or what I was going to do. Eventually, I found my job at Columbia Business School through the JETAANY newsletter. It had a language program that I could relate to via my JET experience and a Web journal that fit in with my journalism background. I had no clue when I received the offer that I would spend so much of my career there and that I would grow so much.  

I was at Columbia Business School for nine years [before starting my Foreign Service training [in July 2013]. At the Chazen Institute, I grew both personally and professionally. My manager was superb, as were my fellow colleagues, and the work was challenging and diverse. International education and specifically master’s-level education was a good fit for my personality and skills. I was able to use my experience working in a different cultural environment on JET and develop those skills at Columbia. I managed speaker series and visitor programs, but my main focus was on developing and managing the study tour program where groups of students traveled to different countries for weeklong trips to meet with companies and learn about the challenges and opportunities in foreign markets.

The process to getting into the Foreign Service is a long one—they only take a limited number of people each year and the way government funding is going, the numbers may not rebound for a while. In other words, you can be an excellent candidate but might not make it at your first or even your second go around, so don’t be discouraged. A senior officer once told me the average is three tries. And even when you pass the final interview, the advice is “don’t quit your day job.”  Making it on to the list is certainly something to celebrate, but I know too many people who didn’t get called off the list before their time on the list expired. So the way to prepare is to continue to grow as a person. My job at Columbia and my experiences there prepared me for the interview. If the Foreign Service is your goal, take a job that will give you responsibility and situations to talk about in the interview. Something else to remember is that all ages join the Foreign Service—just in my entering class we had people from [ages] 24 to 50, so it is something you can start at many different points in your life.

Since JET was the last time I embarked on a long-term adventure like this, I have been thinking back to that time in my preparation for this trip. It is funny that no matter how many times you do this, it is still always new. You try to anticipate and prepare for everything, but at the end of the day it is what it is—a fun ride and you have to take time to enjoy it. From sushi to ceviche, the adventure continues.

Alexander McLaren, U.S. Embassy Port of Spain, Public Affairs Section

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Alexander McLaren (Kyoto-fu, 1996-99) graduated with a BA in history and Asian studies from the State University of New York at Binghamton, and received a Master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from New York University. Here, he discusses how a history course in college changed his view of the world, and how his travels while on JET inspired him to apply to the Foreign Service.

When I went to high school, we were taught that history started in Mesopotamia and then moved west: Egypt, Greece, Rome, France, England, and finally, the United States. East Asia really didn’t pop up in any meaningful way until we got to 1941.

So in college, the first class I signed up for was Introduction to East Asia and by my sophomore year, I was halfway to a degree in Asian studies. I did a semester at Kansai Gaidai and that cemented my love of the region. I was lucky enough to be posted to Kyoto for my JET tour.

[My time on JET] really did open my eyes to what’s out there. I still remember some of the trips I took to China, the Philippines and Vietnam, which cemented my desire to learn as much as I could and to come back.

[When I returned to the U.S.], after a few months as a temp, I started working for Scholastic while teaching English part time and doing my master’s at NYU. Soon after finishing my master’s I passed the Foreign Service exam and entered the State Department.

My first posting in the State Department was as a Consular Officer in Georgetown, Guyana, working mainly on immigrant visas. After two years there I moved on to Beijing and spent two years as a press officer. It was tough but fascinating work—we regularly had visits from cabinet officials and members of Congress, all of whom required press support. I met President Bush at an Olympic event, worked on press conferences for Secretary Rice, Secretary Clinton and then-Senator Kerry. Not a bad little tour.

That assignment led me to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor where I covered religious freedom in East Asia for two years. Again, fascinating work, I got to meet with North Korean defectors and South Korean activists who are charting human rights abuses there. One interesting thing is that we acknowledge that human rights are a challenge everywhere, so the State Department does human rights reports on every country in the world, including our allies like South Korea and Japan. You can check out these reports on www.humanrights.gov.

I’m now back in the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago as the Public Affairs Officer. I’m just finishing my three years here, then going on to New Delhi where I’ll be a press officer.

Everyone should realize the State Department Foreign Service exam is very competitive. Tens of thousands of people take it each year, and only a few hundred are offered positions. The number of people hired each year is set by the department’s needs and the budget. In some years, very talented candidates are not offered jobs because there just aren’t positions for them. So no matter how bright you are, no matter how committed, make sure you have a backup plan.

There are other options, though. Many people enter the State Department as specialists because they have specific training the department needs. Others enter through fellowships or are hired for civil service jobs.

If hired, it’s an amazing life—you have a chance to live and work overseas, learn new languages and skills, and help shape U.S. foreign policy. You might observe elections, help Americans in distress, or launch education projects.  But it is still a job. There’s no guarantee that you’ll work in Japan, for example, [as] the State Department has over 250 posts worldwide in nearly every country in the world. You will find yourself in places you never expected and you’ll be moving every two to three years. So make sure in your heart that’s what you want. If you’re looking to go to a specific country and make a career there, this probably is not the route you want to take.

One thing I’d recommend, for those who can do it, is to look at an internship, especially one overseas. They give you a taste of what the department is like and usually come with some substantial responsibilities. If you can’t do that, consider contacting your local consulate (there are six in Japan) and see if you can arrange for someone to talk to the JETs at a conference or other event, or maybe do a one-on-one informational interview.

I think all JETs need to give some thought on how they can best use their time in Japan. Being a JET in and of itself does not really qualify you as anything, save perhaps an eikaiwa teacher. But it offers a chance to build professional qualifications in teaching, if you enjoy teaching, and a chance to learn Japanese at a professional level, if you enjoy the language. But you have to make that commitment and take classes on your own time.

You can also put your time into learning and developing other marketable and portable skills.  Teaching is one, IT or accounting are others. Once you have those skills, you really can work anywhere in the world and have that freedom to choose where you live and work.

Finally, take the chance to travel around Asia either while on JET or just after. Japan is amazing and you could easily spend three years exploring it, but with Asia at your doorstep you should see as much as you can. If nothing else, it will help you make choices about where you want to live and work in the future.

Dan Sturgeon, Immigrant Visa Chief, Trinidad and Tobago

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Dan Sturgeon (Gifu-ken, 2000-02) holds a BA in political science from the University of Louisville. After completing the JET Program, he returned to the University of Louisville to earn a Master of Arts in political science, and then returned to Japan as aRotary Peace Fellow, where he earned a Master of Arts in public administration and a certificate in peace studies. In contrast to Barnas and McLaren, by the time he was a teenager, Sturgeon already knew he wanted to enter the Foreign Service. Here, he talks about how he achieved his lifelong goal, and how witnessing 9/11 from abroad made him even more determined to serve his country.

I decided to become a diplomat in high school while studying in Germany as aCongress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Scholar, a Department of State exchange program for high school students. It was there that I met a U.S. Diplomat for the first time, and decided to pursue this career. From that point forward, every pursuit was to achieve the singular goal of becoming a Foreign Service Officer. While studying at the University of Louisville, I served as an intern both at the U.S. Consulate General Frankfurt, and at a hardware company in Munich. As I was about to graduate, I wanted to continue building international experience, and learned about the JET Program through a friend. On a whim, I applied, and was chosen to teach in Gifu Prefecture. It was a decision that would affect the rest of my life.

[While on JET] I distinctly remember September 11, 2001. I came home from my Japanese lesson that evening, turned on my television, and saw what I thought was the scene out of a movie. One look at my satellite receiver confirmed that it was no movie—but live on CNN. It was then I saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

When I arrived at school the next morning, the vice principal met me at my car and asked me how I was. I choked as I told him that while my family and I were OK, my country was not. Later in the day, a student asked me the same question. My voice cracked as I told a whole class of eight-year-olds again how I felt about what happened.

With all flights canceled, it sunk in that I was stranded in a foreign country. It was then that I became more determined to serve my country and my fellow citizens. As a Consular Officer of the United States, I can be there when Americans are in their greatest need. I can protect our borders from those who would harm us, and facilitate legitimate travel to the United States. A few weeks later, under strict security, I took the Foreign Service Officer Test [for the first time] at the U.S. Consulate in Nagoya, Japan. I now spend my days protecting our nation’s borders, facilitating legitimate travel, and assisting U.S. citizens in need.

[Immediately after JET] I returned to the University of Louisville, where I earned my Master of Arts in political science. Building on my teaching experience, I worked as a graduate assistant in the university’s academic support office. Two years on JET allowed me to mature as a student, and I was the only graduate student in my program selected for the Dean’s List. Before graduating again from the University of Louisville, I was selected as aRotary Peace Fellow, which allowed me to study at International Christian University in Tokyo. As a Rotary Peace Fellow, I participated in many political discussion groups in the city, which led to my working as a research assistant to author Yoichi Funabashi while he was writing a book on North Korea. I then returned to the United States where I first worked for JETRO based in Annapolis, Maryland. I soon moved to the Tokyo Shimbun, where I covered the 2008 presidential election as well as the State Department. Finally, before joining the Department of State I worked as a local staff member for the Consulate General of Japan in Atlanta where I was a speechwriter and political analyst.

In the Foreign Service, we change posts and jobs every two to three years. Regardless of your career track, it is important to perform any job you are assigned to the best of your ability. Having this attitude is the best preparation for a career in international relations. I could not have imagined when I was on the JET Program that I would earn two graduate degrees on scholarship, end up covering the White House as a journalist, and meet President Jimmy Carter in his living room. I was able to do these things because I approached every job and experience as an opportunity, and worked to develop the skills necessary to get the job done and achieve my long-term goals.

The JET Program provides a superb opportunity to learn a foreign language, learn more about yourself and your own culture, and develop critical professional skills. Learning fluent Japanese, developing a deep and nuanced understanding of culture, history, politics, or current events, or learning how to interact and communicate with people from different cultures are the invaluable skills one must develop to make yourself truly marketable. JET alumni must continue building their skills gained while on JET by leveraging what they know to learn new skills. It is not enough to know a little about Japan, speak only conversational Japanese, and have knowledge limited only to the latest members of AKB48.

I never imagined another career besides the Foreign Service. It is a dream come true job for me.  I took the Foreign Service Officer Test many times over the years. There were times I gave up and quit. While I did pursue a career in academia, and had begun a career in journalism prior to joining the Foreign Service, these were my plan Bs. However, this is the job I sought to achieve, and I do not regret making this choice.

For more on the U.S. Department of State, visit www.state.gov.

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