Senpai Success Story #11: Sarah, Explorer of Language Programs

Summer camp in Japan

Welcome to the Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

The Beginnings & School Days

My journey with Japanese is still very much in progress, but then again I don’t think any language learner’s journey ever really ends, no matter how good you get. I hope that by sharing my story with Japanese so far, I will help provide resources or encouragement to other people on their own journey. For a year or so after originally discovering Japanese, I spent my time self-studying before I became aware of a program in Minnesota called Concordia Language Villages that has a Japanese summer camp called Mori No Ike. I attended Mori No Ike for two weeks that summer, two weeks the next summer, and for four weeks (a program that would give my high school credit) the following summer. I would later return again as a counselor for one summer while I was in college. 

Mori No Ike fueled my love for the Japanese language and culture, which inspired me to continue studying it in college, despite my firmly held belief at the time that no one in their right mind would willingly sign up for four more years of school. I majored in Japanese at Beloit College, and at the prompting of my academic advisors, minored in museum studies to show that my language skills could have a practical application. It turned out to be a rather fitting pairing. Museum studies allowed me to explore my cultural interests through studying physical cultural artifacts. 

I decided to study abroad during my Junior year, but I wanted to have more than just two year of language courses under my belt by the time I went, so I decided to participate in my college’s CLS summer language program (which is open to those outside the college as well). Thanks to this program, I completed my second year of Japanese over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, leaving me with three full years of language experience before going abroad. I ended up studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I met a ton of great people, I lived with a Japanese host family, my language skills increased significantly, and I grew hugely as a person. 

However, it was also one of the most stressful experiences of my life because while I was abroad I had a health scare that ultimately had me returning home a month early. Health wise, everything was sorted out pretty quickly once I got home, but this marked the beginning of a slump I would continue to struggle through during my final year in college. Many things contributed to this slump, but on the language and future-goals side of things, I was feeling lost. Ever since becoming interested in Japan, I really only had one goal in mind: to get to Japan. At some point in the early years, I had even tried secretly hoarding money to buy a plane ticket to Japan, but I was eventually found out and told I could go once I went to college. So there I was, in college, having completed that goal I had held on to for seven years, and suddenly I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had no other end goal, so I started taking shots in the dark academically and following anything that interested me. Though that final year of college was challenging, the variety of things I learned and projects I had a chance to work on left me more inspired and hopeful that there were a lot of possibilities out there for someone with a love of language and culture. 

Post- College Exploration

After graduation I decided to take two years off to recuperate and decide what I wanted to do next. I’m sure a lot of people who study Japanese get to a point where they are trying to decide if they want to go straight into working, or if they should go back to school and study more. Personally, I don’t think you have to immediately choose one or the other if you have the financial flexibility to do so. Though I ultimately decided that I would go back to school, I took time after graduating to search for a variety of opportunities that used my Japanese as a way to try and figure out what really interested me. 

Initially, while working in a café, I began researching universities, applying for graduate schools and looking for ways to get back to Japan and gain more experience. All the while I began attending a Japanese language exchange group through an application called Meetup. It was a great placeholder that allowed me to keep using my Japanese and to meet others with the same interests as me. The first opportunity I found was through connections at this Meetup group. That year I was able to volunteer as an interpreter for a Japanese voice actress who was attending a local event called ACEN (Anime Central). I participated in it again this year, and it has been a great way to road test my Japanese in a more professional role. 

The next two opportunities I found through my own research online. The first was an outdoors summer camp for Japanese children who have been orphaned, abused or abandoned that is run by an NPO called Mirai No Mori. It is an organization I suggest to anyone and everyone interested in Japan and Japanese who ask me for suggestions. This experience is what sparked my current interest in wanting to help underserved populations in Japan, which I hope I will be able to pursue more in the future. Following soon after, I participated in a three month long Japanese program in Sapporo at the Japanese Language Institute of Sapporo, which I found through an online service called GoGoNihon. After returning home, all I had left to do was wait for responses back from the schools I had applied to, so in the meantime I got a job working at my local Kinokuniya in an effort to keep using my Japanese on a regular basis. That was where I was when the lovely Kasia who runs this site happened to call the store! 

I suppose that leaves where I am planning to go from here. Well, along with applying for graduate school, I actually also applied to a 10 month long program run by the Inter University Center for Japanese Language Studies which is geared towards learning academic and/or professional Japanese. I was lucky enough to be accepted, so that will be my next step this coming fall, and then on to gradate school for a Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language, with a focus on teaching native Japanese speakers. 

But why school instead of working right away? For me I guess it is mainly two reasons: One, I want to further improve my Japanese before jumping into bilingual work and I have the time and flexibility to do that right now. Two, I need more time, and the advice of those already familiar with the opportunities in the field, to figure out what kind of work would best suit me and what I enjoy doing. The thing I like most about being a Japanese speaker is the ability to connect with people across cultures, which is part of the reason I gravitated towards the NPO work of Mirai No Mori. Being in the academic setting of the Inter University Center for Japanese Language Studies and graduate school will give me the opportunity to talk to a lot of like minded people, professors who are aware of a variety of opportunities, and veterans in the field of Japanese language with connections to people in areas that might interest me. For people who already have a clear idea of what they want to do with their Japanese, going straight into work may make more sense, but I am not set on any particular career as of yet. 

Like I said, my journey with Japanese is still very much in progress, but I can attest to the fact that there are opportunities out there for Japanese learners and speakers if you look for them. The path to getting to where you want to be with Japanese and Japan might not be straight forward, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. 

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