Q&A with TOMODACHI Program Participants and TOMODACHI Alumni: Jennifer Butler
“Believing in a student’s potential is very important at an early stage”- A TOMODACHI Alumna shares her career journey and TOMODACHI experience.
Jennifer Butler is a TOMODACHI alumna of the TOMODACHI-Mitsui & Co. Leadership Program 2014 and has been involved in the TOMODACHI community in various ways since. She is passionate about the field of education and has worked in various areas. Currently, she works at the Ashinaga Foundation to help students from Africa study in Japan. In this interview, she shares her unique experience with TOMODACHI and how she finds her area of interest and mission. This interview was conducted by Haruka Nakajima, TOMODACHI alumni intern based in Tokyo, in September 2022.
Q1. Can you share your experience of starting your career in Japan?
My university in the U.S. had a sister city in Japan, and I had a chance to work with young Japanese students in America, supporting their short-term exchange. After I finished my undergraduate studies, I joined the JET Program and stayed in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, for three years. I got experience in a lot of different schools and with a variety of teachers and students. I could continue to realize I enjoyed working with students, but the difference was that I enjoyed short-term exchange programs more than teaching in the classroom. My challenge at that point was how to work with students but not be in the classroom. Then I learned more about exchange programming. Those experiences working with the Japanese students from the university and JET let me understand that there’s more opportunity for a career with students in education than just teaching.
Q2. You have experienced several TOMODACHI programs, such as being a group lead and participant. Can you share your experience in the TOMODACHI?
I think my TOMODACHI experiences are unique because I’ve seen them from a lot of different perspectives. While I worked at the Consulate-General of Japan in Nashville (Tennessee), the Great East Japan Earthquake happened. As you know, TOMODACHI was created directly as a result of the earthquake. Some of the participants of early programs came to our region, and I helped them as consulate staff. After that, I applied for the TOMODACHI-Mitsui & Co. Leadership Program, one of the programs for young professionals on leadership and innovation. Then after leaving the consulate, I moved back to my hometown and worked on the TOMODACHI KAKEHASHI Inouye Scholars Program as a group leader for Japanese high school and university students. Afterward, while I worked at Jackson State University in my hometown of Mississippi, there was another TOMODACHI Kakehashi Inouye Scholars program, and I applied for it to bring students in my university to that program. As staff at the university, I took students to Japan and received students from Japan. Because I had seen things from the outside and the inside of TOMODACHI, when I finally was able to bring my own students from the university, I understood what I hoped they would gain from the program. They were able to have a good experience, and they realized staying connected with TOMODACHI even after the program is also important.
Q3. You’ve worked for students in various countries. What were the interesting experiences with your students?
One of the difficult things about education is that it’s a long-term process. Education is more like a long-term investment and somebody’s potential and future. It’s hard to see sometimes what the results of working with the student are going to be because we can’t see the future. But one of the most interesting things is that believing in a student’s potential is very important at an early stage. My best experiences with students have been when the students themselves have started to realize they have so much potential or they have so many things that they can do with their lives because they’ve had this international experience. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but my best experiences with students have been this realization.
Q4. Throughout your career, you’ve worked in many different places. What is the most important thing when you choose your career?
The important thing is the connection between what that organization is trying to do and what’s important to you. I have been lucky enough that the work that I’ve done has always had some connection to something I believe really strongly in. I believe international education is important because it can change people’s lives. And I believe that people should not be denied this opportunity because it has such a strong impact on somebody’s development and future. For me, what I am trying to choose in a career needs to connect with the mission.
Q5. I think there are many students who have struggled to find what they want to do in the future. Do you have any advice for them?
It’s really hard, and I think it’s okay to be hard. Currently, I’m the Team Director of the Student Support Team in Japan for the Ashinaga Africa Initiative（AAI）. We do a lot of support for the students who are adjusting to Japan, leadership training and different programs. They have something that they care about, and our idea is to expand their minds so that they can see different ways they can achieve the thing that they care about. There’s not just one path. I think a really great thing about the TOMODACHI program is that you can find different people from different fields, talk to each other, and share with each other. The world is a big place. That process of discovery is part of what students should do because you don’t know everything at the beginning. It’s okay not to know, but the hope is during the time you have, you are exploring different things available out there.
Q6. In your bio in TOMODACHI Alumni Connect, you write that “TOMODACHI is a way for us to connect with others who have a common interest in Japan/the US-Japan relationship and a belief that this connection is valuable.” Can you share your experience that you feel your connection with TOMODACHI is valuable?
One of the things is the sense of community and being with people that can understand you. In Ashinaga, we work with students who have lost one or both parents. An important part of the work Ashinaga does create a community or sense of a place where these students who have had the same or similar traumatic experience can gather together and be with people who understand them and that experience. That sense of community is quite important. Because fellow Ashinaga students know what it is like to lose one’s parent, this community understands you, and you feel safe and can express yourself. And so that, connection and a sense of common experience are really important for students to have confidence and feel safe to explore their dreams or their hopes.
To take that understanding and put it into the context of TOMODACHI. There are many different TOMODACHI programs, such as leadership and women’s empowerment. But one of the things that are the same for all of us is that we have this interest in Japan and the U.S. or an understanding that the US-Japan relationship can connect us on a person-to-person level. This is the common area to start with for all of the things that we’re going to do afterward. Being a part of TOMODACHI means you have a space where you don’t have to explain this interest. I like living and working in Japan, and I can have a community of people that understand that same interest. I think that’s important. TOMODACHI Alumni activities help to expand your community. That connection is quite valuable.