First and foremost, I want to give a huge thanks to the Gilman Scholarship Program, Fund for Education Abroad, and KCP for giving me the means and being the vehicles driving this amazing journey through International Education. With that being said, I want to begin by letting everyone know that there is always a way to make your dreams come true. There is scholarship money available for study abroad, as well as a plethora of resources and support networks related to study abroad. All you need to do is a little bit of research and be steadfast in your resolve. If I did it, you can absolutely do it. With that, this article is for the students of KCP, future college graduates, and all of my loyal supporters who have encouraged me to follow my heart.
Since my return from Japan in December 2012, I’ve been working my tail off, finishing up my B.A. degree at Kean University, applying to the JET Program and everything in between. I have worked with several international education organizations to help promote and advocate for study abroad. I was inducted as a Gilman Alumni Ambassador in the Fall of 2013 and have since represented the organization at several conferences. I was also a guest speaker for Fund for Education Abroad’s annual fund raiser in Washington D.C. in October 2013, which raises money for the organization’s scholarship fund. Throughout 2013, I had the privilege of being asked to speak at other conferences, fund raisers and events for study abroad. Upon returning to my university in the Spring 2013, I went right to work promoting study abroad and sharing my experience in Japan and KCP. My experience and the work that followed helped me to catch the eye of the program director of Asian Studies at Kean. She was so impressed with the work I was doing simply because I wanted to the she hired me on the spot to organize and host cultural events for the program on campus.
As for the application process for the JET Program, it is fairly simple, but you have to be organized or you will get yourself lost and confused with all of the paperwork. Make sure you have a crystal clear purpose in your personal statement. Also, make it stand out by adding something unique about yourself. When I arrived in Japan, one of the organizers of the orientation said to me, “Oh, you’re Hector Santiago.” I had no idea who he was and I was surprised he knew my name. He told me that he had remembered me from my application. I don’t remember putting anything that would make me so unique. He said, “Most people put that they want to come to Japan to see Anime, go to Roppongi, or something typical. But I remember reading your application because you are a karate student and you said you want to come to Japan to practice karate.” That little detail from my personal statement made me stand out so much that it not only made me a more memorable candidate, but also possible influenced his decision. It’s no secret that they want participants that are willing to embrace traditional Japanese culture, you put yourself in a much better position to be recognized.
So, I waited about 2 months to get word from the program about which participants would move passed the first stage of the application process and get interviews. I was one of them. I was so happy, I couldn’t contain myself. However, I knew that it wasn’t yet time to celebrate. I still had work to do. I spent weeks preparing for what would amount to one of the most important interviews of my life, thus far. Then, the day had arrived. I remember it so clearly. I showed up for work that day in a business suit. My interview wasn’t until 5pm that day. I had breakfast with my students, got a lot of attention because of the suit, and just in a great mood. I was having such a great day. I left work at 1:30pm. It would take only about 2 to 3 hours total to get from my job to the Japanese Embassy in NYC. Or so it should have. I drove from my job to Kean University. Kean is right next to Union Station and is a quick trip into NYC by train. I bought my tickets and made my way up to the track. As I got there, there was a cargo train on the track. I hadn’t heard anything on the PA system, so I didn’t think much of it. 45 minutes later, it was still there and my train was not. Then the PA system came on telling all passengers that the cargo train is stuck and would be delayed for at least another 45 minutes. At this point it was already about 3:15pm. I had less than 2 hours left to get into NYC and the next reasonable station was about a 30 minute drive away and my car was a 10 minute walk from the station. I made my way to my car, pretending I wasn’t panicking. Let’s fast forward through the pain. I got off the train in NYC Penn Station at 4:30pm and the embassy was a 30 minute walk away. At this point I decided that I would have to be a fool to rely on the NYC subway with the day I was having. So I decided to hoof it. That would have been fine, except as I got out of the station, it had started raining with strong winds. So, I ran the whole way. I got to the interview at 4:55pm, drenched. When I went in for my interview, I told the interviewers about the day I had and what I did to make sure I was there on time. During the interview, they also asked me to have a small conversation in Japanese. There isn’t a very big Japanese population where I live. So, if I spoke Japanese 3 times since I was home, that would have been a lot. While I was rusty for sure, I hadn’t forgotten as much as I’d thought. So, that part went better than I had expected. A short 15 minutes later, it was all over. All I could do was take the long return trip home and hope that my day was not a big waste of time.
After an anxiety-inducing interview and a gut-wrenching wait, I was notified of my acceptance to the JET Program for the 2014-2015 term. I haven’t been this happy since I was accepted to KCP in 2012. I have to admit, it took a while before it fully hit me that I was back in Japan. As I packed my things and prepared to leave for that 14 hour flight back to the land of the rising sun, I couldn’t help but reflect on my first life-changing trip to Japan.