As part of the prestigious Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, Marcos Navarro ’13 will work full-time as an assistant language teacher (ALT) at schools in Japan.

2013 Grad JETs to Japan to Teach English

As part of the prestigious Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, Marcos Navarro '13 will work full-time for at least a year as an assistant language teacher at schools in Japan.

2013 Grad JETs to Japan to Teach English

The first time Marcos Navarro ’13 tried kage udon -- a traditional Japanese soup with noodles -- it was a negative experience. “I was really bad with chopsticks, so it took me about 45 minutes to eat the first time,” he recalled recently. “But it tasted great. It was very frustrating, but I stuck with it.”

Kage udon is now his favorite food. That’s a good thing, because this week he’s off to spend a year in the city of udon: Takamatsu, in the Kagawa prefecture of Japan, is famous for its udon noodles. And as he planned his trip, Navarro couldn’t wait to get there.

He has been accepted into the prestigious Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, a Japanese government initiative to promote internationalization by bringing young college-educated individuals to work throughout the country. Since 1987, over 60,000 JET participants from countries around the world have gained valuable work experience abroad and explored Japan’s rich culture. Navarro will work full-time as an assistant language teacher (ALT) at two elementary schools and a middle school.

The math major and Asian studies minor has already lived a multicultural life. He was born in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish fluently, and he lived in New York City until he was 5; he has lived in Holyoke, Mass., since then. He was an enthusiastic member of the International Club during his time at Elms College, making friends from all over the world.

Navarro visited Japan for three weeks during his undergraduate career as part of the college’s Friendship Partners exchange program with the University of Kochi. After he graduated, he has continued to be active in Asian studies through his work in support of the Elms-Kochi exchange program; this spring, he traveled to that university again May 19-June 5, serving as a program assistant.

“I hope to really broaden my horizons, as far as culture is concerned,” Navarro said. “With the three-week exchange program, you can really only see so much. I feel that this will give me a chance to really dive into the Japanese culture and experience everything that I possibly can.”

This time, Navarro’s visit will last much longer than three weeks. His contract with JET is for one year, with the possibility of extension for a second year. When he finally returns to the States, he hopes to find a teaching position in math here in Western Massachusetts; he’s banking on his JET experience to make him stand out among other applicants. His general well-roundedness should help, too -- before he earned his degree from Elms, he received two associate’s degrees from Holyoke Community College, one in music and the second in liberal arts.

His interest in Japanese culture initially started with anime -- highly stylized cartoons from Japan -- and games at arcades where he worked. “So many games came from Japan, and it got me interested in what I might be missing out on by not knowing much about the culture,” he said. “I researched some very basic things on my own, but I was happy to come to Elms and expand upon that. Just learning about one aspect of a culture can skew your view, making you think that the entire culture is that way, and that’s definitely not the case.”

His favorite courses at Elms were in the Asian studies minor, especially courses focusing on contemporary cultural issues and actual Japanese language classes. He credits his education at Elms as a whole, and particularly his involvement with the International Club, for preparing him for this opportunity.

Navarro can still speak a little Japanese: “Enough to get me by in a very basic conversation,” he said. “If someone were speaking to me at a normal pace, I probably wouldn’t be able to understand too much.” Reading is difficult because he doesn’t know many kanji, the characters comprising the most complicated of the three Japanese writing systems; the other two systems, called hiragana and katakana, are easier to read, and he can get by with those. He’s not too worried.

“Thankfully, JET puts you in a situation to succeed,” Navarro said. “The teacher that you’re working with speaks English, so there aren’t any issues there, and on the application for the ALTs, it states that it’s not a requirement to understand Japanese. The only concern is for daily life, being able to go to the supermarket and such.

“But I’m sure that the longer I’m there, the more I’ll develop language skills, and the ability to speak and understand.”

In other words, he just has to stick with it -- the way he stuck with kage udon and chopsticks.