Broadening perspectives

Graduates travel abroad to find work, new experiences

By Kristi Hsu and Jonathan McNamara

This article appeared in the Daily Texas on 1/20/2005.
It was reprinted with permission from the Daily Texas.

(McNamara is currently studying Japanese at the University of Texas at Austin.)

Media Credit: Mark Mulligan


This year, several UT students will survive their last round of finals. They'll say goodbye to their faithful roommates and their too-small apartments. They'll go out and bid farewell to parties that don't die until the break of dawn. In place of those wonderful college experiences, they'll begin thinking about interviews, resumes and getting a haircut. Or not.

Every year, many students from UT forego the rigors of trying to use their college-gained knowledge in the workforce, opting instead to travel abroad and teach English. Sometimes they're paid. Sometimes they're volunteers. They are history grads, art grads or even graduate students. It's a diverse crowd of people, but they have all decided to leave.

What drives these graduates to temporarily put aside their recently claimed diplomas in order to travel to distant lands as teachers? Why do they forsake all that is familiar in order to share intrinsic knowledge of the English language with people they've never met?

Those that leave

For Nick Lennon, who left UT with bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in educational psychology, going overseas was a chance to experience what assimilation felt in first person. After completing graduate school, he felt that counseling international students would become his calling. While there were no lab rats or mazes involved, Lennon intended to conduct a little experiment of his own.

"I wanted to see what it is like for an international student coming to the U.S." Lennon said. He believed his own experience in a foreign country would help him empathize with future patients. Although he had studied abroad in Scotland as an undergraduate, Lennon said he wanted some place that was more exotic.

With this mind-set and a vocabulary of five Japanese words, Lennon hopped a plane to Japan. But he didn't do it alone.

Lennon applied for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET). Sponsored by the Japanese government, JET is a program designed to encourage the exchange of language and diplomacy between Japan and various English-speaking countries like the United States and Australia. The program makes the transition from Western society to Japanese society easier by helping new English teachers find jobs and housing before they even leave their home countries, said Satsuki Sokol, the Houston JET representative.

Those who apply

Although it was created only 18 years ago, the JET program annually sends more than 6,000 English-speakers to the small island country, and its popularity is on the rise. The number of teachers that JET has sent to Japan has increased by six times since its creation in 1987. The Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., received more than 5,000 applications last year, which were sent through two stages. In round one, viable applications are screened in D.C. and then passed on to the local consulate. Next, candidates are required to interview with the consulate's JET representative and about 40 percent of the applicants are accepted, said Sokol. All applicants need to apply is a bachelor's degree and an interest in Japan.

There are several factors that have made this program a top choice for many recent graduates, Sokol said. Cultural understanding may be at the top of the list.

Naoko Suito, a lecturer in Japanese at UT, feels that programs like JET are a good way to understand other cultures and people in other countries. Having served as a contact for the JET program at UT for the past four years, Suito has seen all types of students getting involved. Some just want to see Japan, but several are interested in education, she said.

"Economically speaking, teaching English is a pretty secure job, and teachers also get health care. To have that kind of security right out of college is definitely attractive," Sokol said. The Internet may also make it easier for potential applicants to learn about the program and also help the growth of pop culture. Sokol said that an interest in Japanese pop culture is probably part of the reason that more people have become interested in Japan.

"We've gotten our share of essays that talk about how a student was inspired because of anime and Japanese movies," she said.

Their reasons to stay abroa Thomas Garza, department chair and director of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at UT, knows about teaching abroad. His dissertation was on the subject. According to Garza, the fall of the Soviet Union has opened up the opportunity for students to study and teach in Russia. Before the fall, teaching in Russia "simply wasn't done," Garza said, adding that during his time in Russia he did teach English to several families who had an interest, but all instruction was on a very informal basis.

Now, "any American who goes to Russia could get a job teaching English," Garza said. Several undergrads do just that. Garza explained that the study abroad trips UT sponsors to Russia usually weigh in at about 20 students. Usually, two or three of those end up staying behind to teach English with or without bothering to graduate first.

"Once they realize they can cope with living there, they start trying to come up with ways to stay," Garza said. Naturally, teaching English is a perfect solution due to the high demand for English instructors in Russia.

Yet there's a lot more available for those who want to stay in Russia. Half of those who participate in Russian exchange programs from UT have majors in subjects ranging from law to engineering; not Russian. Their goal is to put their majors to work in Russia. Garza himself is taking a class of 35 MBA students from the school of business to Russia over spring break, all of whom want to open businesses in Russia.

Aside from business ventures, cultural exchanges with Russia provide and understanding that is instrumental two both sides. Garza began studying Russian in 1976 because the attitude at the time was that the only appropriate interaction with Russia was militaristic. Garza believed that by learning about Russia and sharing American culture with Russians, a mutual understanding could be obtained. If both sides take the time to learn about themselves and each other, Garza said, "We'll all be really happy about things."

This exchange of information across physical and cultural boundaries doesn't end with Americans going abroad.

This year, several Japanese students will survive their last round of finals. They'll say goodbye to their faithful roommates and their too-small apartments. They'll go out and bid farewell to parties that refuse to end until the first light of dawn. They'll leave their homes and come to America and teach us about their culture.

What drives these graduates to temporarily put aside their recently claimed diplomas in order to travel to distant lands as teachers? Simple. They come for the opportunity to exchange a little part of what they left behind for a little piece of something new.

You've graduated. What's next?

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme
JET's main site can be found at:

Council on International Educational Exchange
CIEE offers numerous study abroad opportunities for university students.

For general information about studying and teaching abroad, check out: