This is the third installment in an occasional series of guest columns from graduating seniors about what they’ll be doing after graduation. Whether it’s video games, a job or anything in between, everyone’s got a “what’s next” story. Interested in sharing yours? Email us.
This article would be infinitely easier to write if the reason I’ve decided to move across the globe to teach English was simply the sagging journalism industry. That story would go something like: “Couldn’t find a job, didn’t want to move in with my parents, found a job teaching English in Japan, game, set, match.” This version of events also would adequately address assorted loose ends, such as why I’m voluntarily choosing to live in a country where the only word I grasp is “Tamagotchi.”
Unfortunately, the actual explanation for this migration isn’t so simple.
I first heard about the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme (originally a British-Japanese exchange, hence the wacky spelling) before Fall Quarter of my junior year. JET — which is sponsored by the Japanese government — enlists college graduates to serve as teaching assistants in elementary through high schools throughout the island nation. I’ve always had a keen interest in Japan, spurred by everything ranging from the stupid (Super Mario Brothers) to the more legitimate (Haruki Murakami), so JET intrigued me to no end. I filed it away as a daydream, however, figuring journalism would always come first in my post-college plans.
Then my passion disintegrated. The first two years of college had already taken their toll — I’d come to Medill with the intention of becoming a sports journalist, a dream that lasted about a quarter — but junior year did the most damage. The Medill “name” no longer was enough, as I became frustrated with the school’s “old school” attitude (read: hesitance to embrace new media platforms while simultaneously not preparing professors to teach about them) and the whole Quotegate affair, which made the dean look as trustworthy as Chrysler. Journalism in general became less personally enjoyable, marred by grim industry news and pointless rivalries (nothing is less fruitful or more lame than a “campus media feud”). And, most glaringly, I realized I didn’t enjoy it as much as I used to — I watched classmates who genuinely loved the profession doing stellar things, while I got by updating the Cute Animal Blog.
Around the same time, I started working at a new work study job tutoring local elementary school kids. It hasn’t always been easy, as I faced both mental (“Do you have a girlfriend Mr. Patrick? You must live a really lonely life without one. Maybe you’re gay, Mr. Patrick.”) and physical (items thrown at my head: pencil, protractor, basketball) torment. Yet I’m still working there today. I’ve come to love my job, regardless of what items get chucked at my head; it feels good to see a student get excited about a project or tell me they really like a book they just picked up. Or maybe I’m just thoroughly entertained by 10-year-olds spontaneously singing a cleaned up version of “Throw Some D’s” on a daily basis. Whichever it is, my job is calming, rewarding and very fun.
The above factors, coupled with the cliche eye-opening college study abroad experience, moved JET from “daydream” to “should really get started on this application” status at the start of my senior year. The work I put into the JET app rivaled my original application to Northwestern, with the added twist that the application was not even the deciding admission factor — the application would determine whether I would get an interview. After mailing it in, I acted as if JET wasn’t anywhere on my radar and looked for journalism jobs — meaning I occasionally glanced at Medill e-mails before deleting them out of boredom.
Eventually, I found out that I’d earned an interview in downtown Chicago, and began preparing for what in my mind was the most important interview of my life. Fearing an onslaught of Japanese current-event questions, I studied up on every detail I could — who the prime minister was, what foreign leaders were visiting, what songs were on the top of the Billboard J-Pop top 10. The day of the interview came and, aside from the realization midway through my Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s breakfast that I wasn’t wearing a belt which prompted an emergency Gap run, everything went relatively well, with the toughest question asked being “Are you a picky eater?” A month later, I found out I had been accepted into JET, meaning I could stop half-heartedly looking at Mediabistro and buy that “learn Japanese” CD from Amazon.
I should be terrified. I’m moving farther away from home than I’ve ever been, to a place where I won’t understand a word and where they eat things better suited for a Shedd Aquarium exhibit. Yet I’m thrilled beyond belief. I loved my time at Northwestern, but I’d be lying if I said it was “the best four years of my life.” On the contrary, I’d count some stretches of college among the most disorienting and depressing times I’ve ever had. Entire quarters were spent smothered by feelings of not fitting in, failings with girls and a general blankness of what I wanted to do with my life; heck, all three converged my junior year to make that span of time bad enough that I simply stopped trying to have a social life and distanced myself from my once-close friends, because I just couldn’t take feeling lost anymore.
But that’s why I value Northwestern — not for the academics, not for the dorm hijinks, not for the crazy parties. In these regards, I often think I have failed as a college student. Rather, this place has made me question everything I thought I knew about myself — who I was, what I believed in, what I loved — and this Oprah-worthy introspection has made me more pumped for JET than when Northwestern posted Early Decision results four years ago. JET presents new places to see, new people to meet, new chances to embrace and, most exciting, a clean slate.
I don’t know what role journalism will play for me later in life, though for my parents’ sake I should probably flash that Medill diploma at least a little. I have no idea how Japan will impact me. Heck, I don’t even know how much longer I’ll love writing (confession: I’m aware that most people don’t care about a single word I’ve written here, and this knowledge made this particular article one of the most difficult things I’ve ever produced). What I do know, however, is that I’m not worried about any of that — instead, I’m simply thrilled to see what lies ahead. And if I could dispense only one piece of advice to those just now adjusting to life at Northwestern, it would be not to fear change and to strive for whatever you love. And say sayonara to the rest.
Patrick St. Michel is one of the founders of North by Northwestern. He currently serves as Assistant Multimedia Editor.