Jennifer Washeleski has fun with her students during a junior high speech contest in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. The Mason alumna spent three years in Japan with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program.

Washeleski stands with her supervisor from the JET Program in front of Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, Japan.

  The Mason Spirit

Mason Alumni Set Their Sights on Japan

By Tara Laskowski

For many Americans, getting a taste of Japanese culture means singing karaoke or sampling sushi. But for several George Mason University alumni, the lure of Japanese culture and history was much stronger. Through the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, they expanded their interest in the Asian country to firsthand experiences that were fulfilling and rewarding.

The JET Program invites young college graduates to participate in international exchange and foreign language education throughout Japan. Established in 1987, the program has earned a high reputation, both in Japan and overseas, for its efforts in human and cultural exchanges, and has become one of Japan’s largest cultural exchange programs. Program participants have the opportunity to serve in local government organizations or public and private junior and senior high schools. Several Mason alumni who decided to take advantage of that opportunity have nothing but good things to say about their experiences.

“ I was a couple of years out of school and wanted to live overseas and do something different,” says Jennifer Washeleski, B.A. Speech Communication ’92. “Once I arrived [in Japan], it was a bonus to find such great friendships.”

Washeleski worked in Gifu City, Gifu Prefecture, from 1995 to 1998, team teaching classes with a Japanese teacher of English for junior and senior high school students. Like many JET participants, Washeleski was responsible for after-school activities such as heading the English Club and organizing teacher-training seminars. JET participants often put in long hours in several different schools or educational centers, and the teaching experience can be difficult.

Many JET participants say that, although the experience is an adventure, it is also hard work. For William Shelby, M.P.A. ’02, the JET Program was challenging in ways he never expected. “I was given the responsibility of teaching conversational English to the entire first-year class of about 300 students,” Shelby recalls. Although he had not had much experience, Shelby realized that he had much to teach his students.

“I think the most important thing I did was to show the students and the faculty of that small part of Japan that a foreigner was just as human as they are and to encourage them to take interest in the world outside of Japan.” Shelby realized that to break down the barriers between cultures, it was essential to reach out and try to understand his students’ and mentors’ ways of life.

Although most JET participants have some basic understanding of Japanese culture before they leave, many admit they did not know the language.

Marcie Odens Peck, M.A. International Commerce and Policy ’02, lived in Japan through the JET Program in 1993, working in Kurume City. She says she always was interested in Japanese culture and decided to try something new when she graduated.

“ Living abroad in a country where you don’t know the language or customs, especially when you’re relatively young, can be a significant personal growing experience and a lot of fun,” Peck says. Washeleski also found the language to be a challenge. She admits that, even with all her planning, she still felt a little overwhelmed when she arrived.

“ It took about three months after I arrived before I could really start to communicate on a basic level,” she says. Yet, the mentors and leaders of the program helped the JET participants overcome the cultural and language barriers.

Peck feels the most significant part of her experience was meeting the people and learning their culture. She recalls one of her favorite moments competing in a local team water sports festival in a town near Kurume. “It was a daylong competition involving crazy and hilarious games that only the Japanese could have conceived,” she says. Throughout programs like these, Peck says she and the other JET participants became well acquainted with Japanese life and sportsmanship.

Many former JET participants say that, even with all their careful planning, the cultural differences were rather shocking and difficult to adjust to at first. “Just when you think you know everything there is to know about the Japanese, they surprise you,” says Shelby. “Every waking moment is an adventure like no other.” When sick with the flu one night in Japan, Shelby discovered the hospital to be closed and could only be admitted if he arrived in an ambulance—so he had to call one. “The ride through town was an experience I will never forget,” he recalls. “At one point, stopped in traffic, a car filled with some of my students pulled up by us. When they saw me, they all smiled and waved excitedly.”

Peck was also fascinated by the small differences between American and Japanese cultures. She loved having the opportunity to teach her students about uniquely American things. “I especially enjoyed teaching a whole class of ninth graders how to make American-style omelets,” she recalls. “They’d never seen such a thing before.”

For many of the alumni, studying and appreciating Japanese culture did not stop when their stay ended. Washeleski, who currently serves as president of the JET Alumni Association, has had numerous jobs dealing with foreign relations. She is now a junior foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service, Public Diplomacy Cone, in Washington, D.C., and also serves on the JET Selection Committee. Shelby helps the Institute for Defense Analyses conduct research on issues abroad that will be used to develop tools to teach developing nations and new democracies to maintain security and stability. Peck works for a global accounting firm in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the JET Alumni Association and the Asia Society.

“ I recommend the program to anyone interested in international education, English as a second language, Japan, or even just new adventures,” says Washeleski. “When you finish your time in Japan, you take with you great memories and a worldwide network of alumni to draw from throughout your life.”