Alumni Spotlight: Bahia Simons-Lane (Gunma, 2005-2007)

Please introduce yourself and where you’re from!

My name is Bahia Simons-Lane. I’m originally from Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, but I’ve moved around a lot, living in Japan, Texas, California, Florida, and now Virginia. After I returned from the JET program I worked in marketing for a software company in DC, then relocated to Florida and became a full-time student

Where did you study?

I got my undergraduate degree at the University of California Santa Cruz in theater arts. My focus was on stage management and directing. I was very interested in Japan at the time and took many classes on Japanese history and arts (and a few Japanese courses), but I didn’t officially major or minor in it. Two of my best friends studied abroad in Japan, but I was very dedicated to my theater work and didn’t try to study abroad. However, I had a chance to visit my friend who was at ICU and spend time in Tokyo. I fell in love with the city. The vastness of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, the tall buildings and neon lights, captivated me. It was so different, but there was something about it that gripped me strongly and didn’t let go. Even though I had studied a little about Japan, going there was what made me determined to make it back to Japan to live. I subsequently became a little bit obsessed with Japanese culture and I took every Japan-related class I could, in spite of my very different theater major. I took classes on Japanese history (from modern to ancient), popular culture (from animation to music), and Japanese theater (from Noh to Kabuki). I also took two semesters of Japanese, though I admit I didn’t do very well in those. However, the more I learned, the more eager I was to find a way back to Japan.

After I finished my BA, I was accepted to the graduate certificate program for Theater, where I took additional classes and focused on directing and stage management. I also got some teaching experience working as a teaching assistant for the history of theater and a student production festival. That year I learned about the JET Program from a friend also in the theater program and decided to apply.

After coming back from the JET Program, where I learned that I loved teaching, I considered going back to school to become a high school English teacher, but ultimately decided that my interest was in international and comparative education. I moved to Florida and enrolled in the Master’s in International and Intercultural Education at Florida International University (FIU), which I finished in 2014 along with a graduate certificate in Asian Studies. Then I enrolled in the PhD program for Curriculum and Instruction – Language, Literacy, and Culture. I am currently working on my dissertation on the global perspective of FIU undergraduates participating in the Global Learning Medallion, a voluntary program that combines curricular and co-curricular experiences to develop students’ global perspective.

Where were you placed on JET and for how long?

I was a JET in Gunma Prefecture from 2005 to 2007 at an all-girls academic high school in a rural city. I was an ALT. It sounds cliché, but it was a life changing experience. I was very lucky in my placement. As a high school ALT, I was able to lead many of the courses as the team teaching lead and had a chance to develop a curriculum for an oral communication course. I also used my theater experience to develop two long-term theater projects for my English track students. That experience taught me that I love teaching and made me interested in pursuing a career related to education.

After JET, I stayed for an additional year in Japan to work at the prefectural board of education as the ALT advisor. I had planned to return to United States, but my second year on JET I got married to a former JET from England. His visa for the U.S. took so long I had to find another job in Japan instead of returning home after my second year. As ALT Advisor, I got to work with JET and non-JET ALTs all over the prefecture, helped plan a mid-year conference for ALTs and JTEs and taught at hospital schools and special needs schools. I really enjoyed having a chance to work in Japan in a different role, and it also gave me a chance to improve my Japanese significantly because I was working in an office and at schools where most people didn’t speak any English.

What is your current career?

I’m the executive director of the U.S. JET Programme Alumni Association (USJETAA). USJETAA was founded in 2015 to provide support and resources to the JET community. As a nonprofit organization with paid staff, we are able to support individual JET alumni and the 19 JETAA chapters in the United States. We have programs for JET alumni, JETAA chapters, and current JETs. (Shameless plug: become a member at https://usjetaa.org/! Though we focus on the United States, all JET alumni are eligible to join.)

It’s extremely busy running a nonprofit, but also extremely rewarding that I can stay connected to the JET community and work daily with JETs and folks passionate about Japan. As the only full-time employee, I have my hand in everything, though I do have help managing grants and the day-to-day from a part-time program coordinator and an intern. I am responsible for the strategic aspects of the organization, such as fundraising and long-term growth, stewarding the organization to make sure we are fulfilling our mission, and the day-to-day operations, which include grant programs, fundraising, accounting, social media, and administration. I work closely with our board of directors, who provide guidance and oversight. I also manage the grant process for all our programs from start to finish, including applying for grants, making sure the grants are administered properly, and reporting on them to our grantors. I am the point of contact for all of our grantors and donors.

Working in the nonprofit world uses a lot of the skills I gained on JET and through other jobs and volunteer roles I’ve had in the past, especially things I learned as president of Florida JETAA and from the marketing and administrative work I did right after I came back from the JET Program. I also need to write A LOT, so my graduate school experience has been helpful for writing grant proposals and reports. My route was a bit circuitous because I came back from Japan in 2008, just as the recession started. I was extremely worried about finding a job, so I didn’t specifically look in the fields I wanted to be in (though I did briefly consider going back to school to become a high school English teacher). On a friend’s recommendation, I contacted a temp company and they found me a job as a temp-to-hire office manager for a software company in DC. After three months, they hired me permanently and I was able to grow within the company, eventually moving to the marketing team. I would definitely recommend the temp route for new returnees as a good way to experience different types of jobs and get some short-term income. 

What were some memorable experiences that you felt shaped you while on JET?

This is a tough question. I have so many vivid memories, but it’s hard to pick one that stands out as something that specifically shaped me. Overall, I would say that the experience of being a JET instilled in me feelings of confidence and capability that have stayed with me since. The smallest thing is so difficult when you move to a foreign country, especially when you don’t speak the language. Learning how to overcome the daily challenges and learn to thrive in a drastically different environment gives you the feeling that you can overcome any challenge you face in the future. I remember when I first got to my apartment thinking “what have I gotten myself into,” but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

One fond memory I have is something that showed me the impact I had on my students. One of my students, who was in the English communications track and the English Club, started crying when she found out that I was leaving. Later, I found out she became an English teacher herself, eventually married a Canadian JET alumnus, and moved to Canada. Another former student of mine took a year out from college and came to live with me in Miami while she completed an English program. We’ve stayed in touch over the years and she’s gone from being just a former student to being a friend. She speaks English and Arabic and now is starting her own nature tour business in Izu. It’s now been more than 10 years since I came back from JET. When I left for Japan, I never would have guessed that I’d see my students go from being just kids to capable adults or that I’d still be so connected to the country.

How did JET help you in achieving your current career pathway?

I can say with certainty that I would not be in the career field I am in or have the job I currently have without the JET Program. My initial plan was to go to Japan for only one year on JET. I ended up staying for three years and completely changing what I wanted to do with my life. JET gave me a passion for teaching and an interest in comparative education. This led me to apply for my master’s program and then my PhD program. Though my current academic field is international education, I find the research and methodological skills I’ve learned during grad school are applicable to my work in the nonprofit world.

Skills I developed while on JET were also crucial for the jobs I had after JET, even the ones that had nothing to do with Japan or education. Public speaking, organization, cross-cultural competency, and adaptability to any setting, to name a few. These are qualities desired by most businesses these days.

Joining my JETAA chapter also played a big role in my career path. While in Florida, I got involved in the Florida JETAA chapter leadership, first as newsletter editor (2010-2011) and then as president for 5.5 years (2011-2016). Being new to Miami, Florida JETAA introduced to me to many of my closet friends. It also provided a chance to get to know the wider JETAA network through the annual JETAA national conference, where I met JET alumni leaders from all over the United States. Though I was volunteering my time, as president I thought strategically about the chapter and collaborated with the other officers to grow and professionalize the organization. I also became familiar with social media and website technology, fundraising, and event planning. At the annual National Conference, which I had the privilege of attending a number of times, I met JET alumni chapter leaders from across the United States and learned from them, both their successes and challenges. This made me a better president of JETAA Florida and gave me insight into the chapters that I bring to bear on my current job with USJETAA.

Do you have any advice for current JETs who might be looking into a similar pathway?

Become a member of your local JETAA chapter. Even better, get involved in the leadership of your local JETAA chapter. Honestly, I recommend this for all alumni regardless of the career their want because it’s a great way to build leadership skills and get connected to JETs across the country who are in many different career fields. You could not ask for a better way to network. 

However, if you want to work in the nonprofit sector, JETAA leadership will be especially useful. The leadership positions use many of the same skills you need to run a nonprofit. Nonprofit leaders need to be able to make connections with others in the community, organize events, and fundraise. You often need to be motivated and able to work self-directed. Having experience working with a nonprofit board of directors is also helpful and being a JETAA chapter officer often provides that opportunity. You can add this experience to your resume and highlight the same types of achievements that are desired by nonprofits.