JET vs AmeriCorps
April 21, 2011 1:37 PM   Subscribe

JET (teaching English in Japan) vs AmeriCorps (cool community stuff in my city). Or, how do you decide between two paths that seem comparably engaging/difficult/unknown?

I know to a certain extent, I have to make this decision myself, by whatever personal moral/pragmatic/whatever rubric guides my life, and live with the successes and problems with that choice. Still, I'd like some help wrapping my head around a choice that somehow seems to shift every time I think about it.

I'm just about to graduate with an anthropology degree, a bunch of enthusiasm for community activism/service, and a great girlfriend in the city I live in. And I'm applying for an AmeriCorps job that (a) seems uncommonly well-run and intriguing, even amongst other AmeriCorps positions, and (b) means I could experience my college's city as a graduated adult contributing meaningfully to this community. It's a great match for me, I love the idea of AmeriCorps' mission and would feel much pride and fulfillment serving my community.

On the other hand, I was just accepted into the JET program. I was lucky enough to study in Tokyo a year ago, and while difficult and overwhelming, found it to be a pretty great time. The idea of deepening my experience of Japan and being involved in others' lives in a meanignful way definitely appeals to me. I don't love the idea of just teaching English, but I think JET is more than that; I also embrace the challenges of rural life, a potentially difficult (and potentially quite interesting) school context, etc. Pragmatically, it would be great to return to my city after a year with some solid work experience, a sense of independence/self-direction, a better idea of how I feel about teaching, and some savings. I could also go to a new city with some money and experience and make a fresh start there. But this would be incredibly trying on my relationship, and I'm unsure if I would experience the same sense of serving my community that I likely would here. But who knows?

Not only am I trying to assess the specifics of each opportunity and what each one brings, but I'm also trying to come up with new ways to meaningfully approach making a difficult decision such as this one. (To a certain degree, this is also quite premature, as I haven't yet been offered the AmeriCorps job!) My relationship is newer, but very important to me; though my partner will be studying abroad for some of that time, so the challenge of distance/etc is something we'd face no matter what. I would like to be financially independent as soon as possible, and both pathways would help with that, though AmeriCorps would put me in a much tighter situation financially.

I also have a sense that if I don't do JET right now, I'll never do it. I'll get involved in community type things and want to stay in my city or in America in general for a few years, etc. While I'm not a Japanophile and don't need my life to revolve around East Asia, it would be nice to see through certain possibilities (such as getting a phD in cultural anthropology).

Thoughts? Thank you, and sorry for the special snowflake vibe.
posted by elephantsvanish to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
When in doubt go with the option that subsidizes your travel.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:42 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would lean towards JET. You've already been accepted, so the only other actual real-world thing to consider is your relationship, and if your partner's already going to be out of the country for a while anyway, then the long-distance thing is also moot.

That said, I'm kind of biased by the number of friends and relatives I have who teach English abroad for a living, and LOVE it. There's much worse run programs than JET to learn whether you've got an aptitude for teaching.

And if it doesn't work out, there's always coming back home. I would recommend being up front with your Americorps contact(s) about your choice, and stay on good terms with them. Positions rotate, and it might well be that if you don't burn any bridges that you're only really making a choice about which dream job to do FIRST.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:50 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do the JET program. I have heard fabulous things from JET participants, and it is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Americorps will be here when you get back, if you still want to do a service year in the USA.

I did two years of Americorps, and I'm happy to talk about my experience over memail.
posted by momus_window at 1:53 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second everything momus_window said - including the part about two years of AmeriCorps.
posted by vakker at 2:34 PM on April 21, 2011

I would have loved to have done JET after college. My one caution is not to become one of those expats who stays there for over 3 years and gets trapped in the weird escapism of it.
posted by Victorvacendak at 3:10 PM on April 21, 2011

I'm going to go against the tide a bit. As someone who did JET, I can say that it's not for everyone, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure JET is all it's cracked up to be if your focus is in service.

Japanese education is very didactic in nature, and so much of what you will be doing is very rote and boring, both for you and the kids. This will vary teacher by teacher and class by class, of course, but it's more true than not. Moreover, particularly in the rural areas, learning English just isn't that relevant to people's lives. In a lot of ways, it's less about teaching the language and more about cultural exchange, but there isn't even really much of that beyond "See, foreigners aren't *that* weird". Again, there are exceptions, and I approve of the idea of JET, but the short version is that I think you have a much greater chance of really making a *difference* in Americorps.

You also don't say what your Japanese proficiency is. Believe me when I say that it can very quite difficult to have any sort of a social life beyond other expats without either knowing the language reasonably well or being willing to put a lot of effort into it.

As other people have noted, there's no reason you can't do JET now and Americorps later, and as a personal experience, going to a foreign country for a while can certainly be exciting and challenging. But I wanted to give a realistic assessment.
posted by tau_ceti at 3:13 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as giving service to the community, I think Americorps definitely tops JET. I volunteer in a school where there are crucial programs staffed by Americorps people and they make a huge difference. However, I would choose JET because it's a great adventure to go on as a young person. All my friends who did it had great experiences.
posted by elpea at 4:10 PM on April 21, 2011

Go for JET. Experience of foreign countries is valuable.
posted by twblalock at 5:38 PM on April 21, 2011

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but does one have an option to choose where in Japan you end up teaching in the JET program? Because another thing to consider is that you might end up being sent to a school in the northeastern area (Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Ibaraki, some parts of Chiba), probably not right smack in the middle of the disaster-stricken areas of course, but in the peripheries, where there will be aftershocks. I don't want to scare people considering coming to Japan away, of course, because if you are stationed in those areas you'll be doing a ton of good for the students there and the experience will probably be something you'll look back on later in life and be really proud of. But, earthquakes are a fact of life here, right now more so in general than where you were here last year, and it might be something you'd like to add on your list of pros and cons.
posted by misozaki at 5:55 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

where you were here = when you were here
posted by misozaki at 5:57 PM on April 21, 2011

JETs do not choose their placement, but the overseeing agency CLAIR has been working around the clock for over a month now to ensure JETs in Tohoku are safe. Yeah, if you don't like earthquakes, factor that in.

I'm in the teacher's room in a Japanese school right now and I cannot imagine anything that would make me regret the decision to come here. It's a unique kind of challenge and if you're a thinking person it will make you think hard about world cultures and the meaning of life. Go for it.
posted by shii at 9:07 PM on April 21, 2011

You've been overseas (to Japan specifically) right? Travel is good. If you hadn't been out of the States, I'd definitely say do JET. Knowing you've been here before, and you liked it, well, why not come back, especially if you've been accepted, and you'll have a pretty decent job to boot?

My one caution is not to become one of those expats who stays there for over 3 years and gets trapped

As someone who came here thinking I'd stay for a year or two, but is still here 11 years later, be warned, it can happen. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with escapism, sometimes inertia kicks in, and you find yourself with a strong network of longterm friends, living in a culture that seems to be more like home than home, in a strong relationship with someone who might not be suited to life back home. These things happen. It's not entirely bad, though be warned, staying here, then trying to go home after you're 30? It can be very, very difficult to get back into the working world.

My advice, come. Stay a year or two. Work your butt off. Learn Japanese. See what other skills you can pick up. And unless you've fallen in love with the country, head back home at the end. But definitely do JET. It's an amazing opportunity.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:46 PM on April 21, 2011

I work in student loans at a large university and if I had the choice, I'd go with AmeriCorps.

If you have a Perkins Loan, your school can cancel up to 70% of your loan if you have served in AmeriCorps Vista (15% for the 1st & 2nd years of service, 20% for the 3rd & 4th years). This is a great option for students. If you have Stafford Loans, you can call your lender(s) and ask if they offer something similar.

If you do end up in AmeriCorps, in order to be able to get the loan cancellation benifits, you cannot accept the national service education award they will offer. It will void your ability to cancel your loan. You will have to show proof that you did not accept this.

The JET program sounds great, but getting out from under the cloud of student loans might be more appealing in the long run... Just sayin'.
posted by ATX Peanut at 6:02 AM on April 22, 2011

I'm on JET right now. It turned out I rather like living in rural nowhere Japan. That's a good thing, because the hugely vast majority of JET participants live outside of cities (I'm told that fewer than a dozen total JET participants work in Tokyo and Osaka, combined). I live between a tiny nothing city (prefectural capital; 20 minutes by car) and a bigger, somewhat more notable city (an hour by highway). I live in an area that is technically served by JR, except the closest station is 5km away through mostly rice fields. If "don't need a car" is a major selling point of living in Japan for you, I dunno what to tell you (other than that I learned to stop worrying and love the Fit).

I've seen people leave here after a year because they came expecting MegaTokyo and wound up in a real place where there's, y'know, work and stuff (though given that many of those folks are coming straight out of college without the perspective-enriching benefits of a Real Job before coming here, that may be part of the burnout as well). I've seen people completely lose their shit because they're vegetarians/vegans and simply can't get past the fact that in Japan, a "vegetarian" is someone too poor to eat meat very often, and soup stock made from fish is as "vegetarian" as cabbage. I've seen people unable to adjust to the general lack of overt discipline toward highly disruptive students in Japanese schools (and who take it personally, which leads to a cycle of the student/students behaving in such a manner as to get a rise out of that teacher).

On the other hand, I've seen people absolutely thrive here (my girlfriend and myself included). If you've got something that you can do that keeps you going and it is something you can do both by and for yourself, you'll be a lot better off living in an area where English speakers within a half hour's travel can be counted on two hands.

My girlfriend and I are both on our third year of the JET Programme, and it's been great for us, to the extent that we're both basically strongly considering finding long-term employment within Japan (in whatever industry; not necessarily teaching) after this. On the other hand, we both definitely agree that the Jet Programme would benefit tremendously from instituting a minimum two-year agreement on the part of the participant (with the understanding that it's not a guarantee of employment from them), since the first year is basically orientation and training.

For better or for worse, you'll also be under a different sort of academic pressure with JET than with AmeriCorps, because you'll be viewed as an authority on your native language simply because you speak it without thinking about it. That also means that you never think about how you use it, which can make explaining differences between "that" and "which" or "tall" and "high" very difficult indeed without some degree of familiarity with the mechanics of English. It's a bit of a double-edged sword (and I've seen some absolutely appalling English on materials put together by other JET participants).

Odds are you'll probably be pleased with whichever one you choose. Just offering a couple potential caveats about the JET Programme.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:16 PM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Referring to the student loans ATX Peanut brought up, those were half the reason I came here in the first place. I owed the maximum in subsidised loans (something like $18000) when I graduated, and I came to Japan in part to pay them off. Had things gone as I'd planned, I would have paid them off within two years, maybe three. Life got in the way, and I need to make a couple trips home during the first couple of years, but I was debt free by the middle of my fourth year here, while many of the people I graduated with needed the full ten years to pay off their debt.

Something that might be helpful to you if it lasts, the Yen is absurdly strong right now. When I was paying off my loans, I was sending money home at between 130 to 125 yen to the dollar, and now it's holding around 80 to 85 yen to the dollar. The money you are able to save teaching JET (some districts offer housing subsidies, even) will actually be pretty significant for you, especially if you're in rural Japan and think carefully about spending (a salary of 300,000 yen a month can go quite far outside major cities).
posted by Ghidorah at 3:22 AM on April 23, 2011

I did JET at 21 after finishing university - had never been abroad before, had never taught, didn't speak a word of Japanese. The first few months were tough but it was the best thing I ever did. The two close friends I made there (in 1997) are still there, and I would go back in a heartbeat if there was a job in my field - I check the job listings regularly.

JET is far far better than just 'teaching in Japan' - I went back some years later and worked for a few language schools, and that made me realise just how good I'd had it on JET. On JET you're looked after and helped every step of the way, and that is such a good thing. I was only there for a year, and right in the middle of Tokyo, yet I managed to save £5000, go on holiday for a month to Thailand, go out whenever I wanted, and buy so many books that I had to ship two boxes home. To me JET is unusual and exceptional because you get to have that year abroad - and you get to save up as well for a postgrad or further travel or to pay off student debts. I would definitely definitely recommend it. Anything in your home country will still be there when you get back. You've already been accepted, which I only realised later was quite a big deal as it's a popular programme. If you want to live and work in Japan for a year I don't think there's much better around than JET.
posted by mudkicker at 8:19 AM on April 23, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for the wonderful perspectives!

In case anyone was interested, I thought I would offer a follow-up. Upon considering these responses, and also meeting with various professors, I gradually became convinced that the JET program was the 'best' in terms of future opportunities, money, and timing.

However, I ended up selecting AmeriCorps. I realized that for me personally, the challenge of staying in the same place might be even more important than the adventure of going abroad. There are things I want to accomplish here, and ways I want to push myself, and AmeriCorps is a great way to get at all of those. Plus, deep down in my heart, I don't feel a great Love for Japan that would make me regret being there over the next year. It helped to go through this process and see things abstractly, but I ultimately was able to make a decision consistent with my goals and value system, and feel very proud of that.

Thanks again!
posted by elephantsvanish at 9:53 AM on May 7, 2011

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