David Leung (Nagasaki, 2009-2010) walked us through his decision to leave JET and eventually finding his way to his current position as Graduate Policy Officer for the State Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology back in Australia.
NAJET: When in the JET-year did you decide not to re-contract?
David: It was the toughest decision to make, whether or not to recontract. It is usually the worst time of the year for most JETs to carry such a heavy burden, either having just settled in, or in the most serious bouts of wintery homesickness.
For me, from the very beginning, it was always an open option to stay for as long as I could enjoy the experience and be of use to my local community on Fukue Island. The main reason I was still debating at the 11th hour wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy my work (I loved my schools, my Japanese colleagues and the kids), my social life (I had the closest network of JET teachers, who will remain some of my closest friends for the rest of my life, and was a member of the warmest Taiko Team you could imagine) or the environment (fresh local produce and delicious Goto udon that you must try, the friendliest neighbours, and the most gorgeous tropical island with beaches). It was the fact that I left the love of my life back home in Australia. When it came down to it, choosing to stay would be choosing a life for me, and choosing not to recontract meant choosing a life together with my partner.
NAJET: What’s important for JETs to do once they decide not to re-contract?
David: The two toughest things to do is to keep up the energy and try to pack in as much experience as you can in the time left. I found that I subconsciously began to distance myself from all aspects of life, I guess as a defence mechanism against the inevitable pain of leaving a year’s worth of relationships, work and stories.
Make a list of things that you want to do, either mentally or written down. This list doesn’t just include experiences that you can only do in Japan or your local community, but also making the time to say proper goodbyes with people that have become close to you over the past year(s) you may not see ever again. As time to go draws near, time speeds up; your mind will wander to the future, leaving less time and space for the present – having the list helps you keep focused and in the here and now.
Make the effort to say goodbye to your school(s) and exchange contact details with those nearest and dearest to you. You never know with whom you will want to stay in touch during a lonely moment after a few months of being back at home.
Don’t underestimate the amount of luggage you will want to bring home, and be prepared for bulky and impractical (but wonderfully sentimental and treasured) goodbye gifts from people you’d least expect.
NAJET: How did you get started on your job search when you returned home?
David: As soon as I decided to return home, I started my job search online via the numerous jobseeker support websites here in Australia. I had plenty of conversation with my partner, my family and my friends, all of whom were splendid sources of support and advice.
I had a pretty clear idea of where I wanted to be – education policy. Having worked in rural Japan, I saw areas of improvement in local government policy and funding decisions first-hand, yet could do nothing about it at the teaching level.
My university provided a career service which continued even after I graduated. There were people to help me with every single step of the job application process, from job searching, cover letter writing, to interview preparation. You may find that your tertiary institution also has this service.
I would advise any JET to maintain their résumés up-to-date and keep an eye on job openings back home to ensure that you can hit the ground running. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy a few weeks of break when I got home to readjust and reacquaint.
NAJET: You took some casual positions before finding your current job. Do you have any advice for new JET Alumni who can’t find the job right away?
David: You are almost certainly amazing if you finished a placement on JET. Do not ever forget that, no matter how many interview panels refuse you, or how many blasé letters of rejection you receive in the mail.
During the few months of unemployment, (after the first month of bliss) I found it awfully discouraging to be doing nothing after such an amazing year. Some days I seriously questioned my self-identity too, because I was still finding my feet with my friends and how to structure my life. If you feel any self-doubt, it is important to seek out genuine and caring sources of support and encouragement. I was very lucky to have my partner and my family as a close circle of support, both emotional and financial, to keep me going during the days which I was the most down.
NAJET: Speaking of some of your interim positions…what was it like working at a robotic dinosaur exhibit? What did you do? (And are there pictures?)
David: Along the quest for the right job, you might run into one of those alternate dimensions where you could see another ‘you’ happily working in another life. That’s how I feel about working at the Robotic Dinosaur exhibit. I loved my role since I could see and interact with so many people (and we had a staggering number of adult guests too). Seeing kids’ faces light up in delight or scrunch up in paralysing fear just confirmed my belief that it is children who have the most powerful imagination.
I was a customer service attendant, selling tickets and souvenirs, giving some information on dinosaurs, assuring and comforting crying children who could not be convinced that the dinosaurs were just ‘big toys’, keeping guests away from the dinosaur habits by telling them off nicely (or ‘killing with kindness’, as one on my colleagues described) and running occasional tours around our 8 animatronic dinosaurs.
NAJET: What kind of things are you working on now as a Graduate Policy Officer for the State Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology?
David: Our department has a fair diverse portfolio, from providing and regulating public tertiary education to encouraging workforce participation, science and technological development. I feel very lucky to have dropped into the organisation during a very exciting period of change. There is a push for reform in the vocational education and training system in the State and around Australia. I am responsible for giving policy advice and helping to draft the legislation that will allow the public provider of training to change and improve the way it delivers education. I also perform legal research and consult with different parties to produce advice directly for executives in the department, in areas such as regulation of training providers, governance arrangements for new public institutions, and governance options from different jurisdictions.
NAJET: Is your current position more related to your background in law and architecture? Or is your time as an ALT at all relevant to what you’re doing now?
David: Although I was recruited in my current position for my legal and design skills, I believe that I would not have secured my position without the life experiences I have had to date. There is no question that JET provided me with a vast range of work and life experiences that gave me an edge as a job seeker.
My work experiences in Japan provided a deep pool of examples and resources that I could refer to in job applications and interviews. I faced so many challenges in creativity, teamwork, communication, developing materials, project management, and negotiation as an ALT, all of which were essential selection criteria in many of the positions for which I applied. Any successful JET develops a strength of character, a greater clarity in communication, a unique set of interpersonal skills that a smart employer would not overlook, not just in a teaching role, but any role involving those skills.