alternate purgatory part 2

Why I’m Glad I Was an Alternate: A Guide to Thriving in Alternate Purgatory – Life in Limbo

Last time I went into my experience as an alternate; this time, it’s time to turn the focus to you, fellow alternates! Either you were alternated but have since received the mysterious “call” and have therefore ascended to the lofty rank of “short-lister” (fingers crossed?) or… you’re still very much stuck in limbo. If the latter is true, then this post’s for you. If you’ve been lucky enough to have received an upgrade, then congrats! Be sure to check out next week’s post which will go into what should be done once you’ve been upgraded.

Why Did This Happen to Me?

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If you currently find yourself trapped in the purgatory that is alternate-dom, you may ask yourself the above. And then you’ll probably ask it again. And again. And again –  going through that nerve-wracking JET interview in your head and wondering what went wrong.

I know I certainly did.

Considering that I had felt I was both very qualified for the job and that my interview had, for the most part, gone fantastically, I just couldn’t figure out why? Why me? Why wasn’t I good enough? What did the short-listers have that I didn’t?

Well, as I touched upon in my last post, no one really knows the answer! So save yourself the headache and stop asking these questions! It’s only natural to wonder what you could have done better (and even helpful if you end up not getting upgraded and subsequently apply to JET again) but there’s a point where it just becomes destructive. Better to let it go and focus on what you can do right now.

Chances of an Upgrade

So here are the facts (as far as I’m aware) – granted, they’re not very concrete because a lot varies from year to year, but having a general idea of how the whole process works can give one a kind of peace of mind. Just remember to take it with a grain of salt. I don’t work for the embassies so I can’t vouch for just how accurate any of the following is. It is quite simply a culmination of what I have gathered through research, personal experience, and talking to various people.

One’s Interview “Score”

Apparently when potential JETs are interviewed, they’re given a score based on how well they did. This score is what ultimately determines their fate in regard to the JET Program. If their score is low, they are flat-out rejected. For those with higher scores, though, things get a little more complicated.

Depending on the ratio of interviewees who scored high to positions that are currently available, there may be more people with a high score than there are positions available. In that case, certain candidates are short-listed while others are placed on the alternate list. How do they determine who is short-listed and who is alternated, you may wonder? The unfortunate answer is that no one really knows for sure; JET seems to keep that information tightly under wraps.

I think a lot of it depends on what each particular contracting organization is looking for in an AET, however. Whether you are willing (and able) to drive in Japan and your Japanese ability (or lack thereof) may play a part in it. In some cases, the ugly truth seems to be based on factors out of our control, such as gender and nationality.

In my area, for example, many of the positions are filled by males and – as far as I know – always have been. Whereas I’m female and every one of my predecessors (except for the one right before me) were also female. Now that might sound extremely discriminatory but I won’t judge too harshly as I believe the contracting organizations all have their own reasons for choosing specifics “types” of people.

Take another example in my area: there apparently used to be a lot more national diversity among the JETs. But last year an American military base was put up and now all but one of the JETs are American. We suspect that our contracting organization was actively scouting out Americans as potential candidates because they hoped that we could help smooth relations between the military and the locals. Whether that is the case or not, I truly do believe they have reasons other than blatant discrimination for choosing the people they do – at least, I really hope that’s the case! Regardless, there’s nothing we can do about it so no use crying over spilt milk, as they say.

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My apartment in the inaka!

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…at least it has a good view!

The Alternate “List”

From what I understand, the alternate “list” is fairly long because JET anticipates a large dropout rate. Each year many potential short-listers will decline the offer or drop out once accepted due to various reasons. Another common occurrence is that current JETs will decide at the last minute that they don’t actually want to re-contract (such as in the case of my predecessor). For that reason JET likes to have a lot of back-up and that’s why each year quite a large portion of the alternate “list” is, in fact, upgraded!

When I was alternated – I had a hard time believing being upgraded could be that common, but as I quickly found out, it is. I’d say almost half of the current JETs and JET alumni I know were initially alternates! Of course, I’m still the weirdo here because most of those people were upgraded within the first two months of discovering their alternate status. In fact, one of my fellow Kyotango JETs was only on the alternate “list” for a single day.

 Now you may be wondering why I keep writing “list” in quotes, right? Well, I use quotes with the word because after a certain point, it seems like it’s more of a pool that is drawn from, based on what the contracting organization is looking for. I suspect this because I was apparently quite low on “the list.” And just how do I know that?

I asked.

Yes, you can ask where your place on “the list” is. Your coordinator may not be allowed to give an answer, however. And regardless of if they can or cannot answer, I can guarantee that your answer won’t be a straight one.

I was lucky in that my embassy was one of the supposed “relaxed” ones when it came to finding out one’s position on the alternate list. I called my coordinator in regard to some paperwork I had to turn in and toward the end of our conversation, went ahead and asked if she could possibly give me any indication of my place on the list. She did – subtly – and it was not what I was hoping to hear. In essence she encouraged me to “pursue other things,” implying that I was probably quite low on the list and therefore wouldn’t be getting into JET. Ouch.

FATALITY

 So yeah, go ahead and ask. It can’t hurt. Just don’t annoy your coordinator by asking for updates constantly. One call is enough. And don’t pay too much attention to whatever you learn (or don’t learn), because despite what my coordinator implied in that call, she ended up calling me back a couple months later to offer me an upgrade!

The “Call”

You may be wondering about the nature of “the call.” Questions like “What time of day should I expect it? “ and “Will I miss out on an upgrade if I miss my call?” are common. When I was an alternate, specifics on “the call” were hard to come by. This led to more than a little OCD on my part. Normally one to pay little attention to my phone, I couldn’t stop checking it for the three-ish months of my alternate-dom. I’d always have the volume turned up loud and I was extremely wary of any unknown number I saw. A couple of times I swore it was the embassy and by missing their call I believed I had missed my chance at an upgrade! (Conveniently, they didn’t leave a message. Or call more than once. Or try to contact me by other means… the things the mind of a desperate person conjures up!) So hopefully by answering such questions, I can save y’all some sanity!

When to Expect It

In my case, the call came in the morning. To be more specific, 10:44am – at least, that’s the time my supervisor left her voice message for me. (Yes, I still have the message on my phone… but I’m not that crazy, I promise!) Most other alternates I asked also got their calls in the morning. It seems like the calls are made within the first few hours the embassy is open. Also worth noting is that (as far as I’m aware) the call will happen while the embassy is open! That means you don’t need to worry about missing your call outside of normal business hours.

What to Watch For

Not everyone receives a call though. Sometimes it’s only an email, so be sure to check the email you used for your JET application at least a few times a day. In my case I received a single call on my cell, a voicemail, and an email. This seems to be fairly standard but I’ve heard of people only getting an email. I suppose it just depends on the embassy? So if you know someone who was upgraded from your embassy, I’d ask them just how they were notified to get a good idea of what to expect.

Also worth noting is that the number they used to contact me was unmistakable; it was the number of my JET coordinator and one I already had in my phone. My JET coordinator’s number was a variation of the embassy phone number, so if, for some reason, you don’t know your JET coordinator’s number, be sure to look up the number of the embassy and get familiar with it.

What If I Miss My Call?

No sweat if you miss your call; I did, along with many of my fellow alternate upgrades. As I went into above, it seems to be fairly common for your coordinator to try to contact you via multiple means. They really want to get a hold of you because it is likely that you hold the invisible qualities they are seeking to fill whatever position has opened up. Now that doesn’t mean they’ll wait forever for you, though, as they do have a schedule to keep. So I think it goes without saying that if you see a missed call or email from your coordinator, you should get back to them ASAP!

In my case, I believe I got back to my coordinator within two hours of her leaving the message. I have a feeling they give you at least until the end of the day to get back to them, so I’d suggest being very mindful of your phone and email during your embassy’s business hours. That way if they try to contact you, you can get back to them before the end of the work day. If the embassy is closed when you realize you received a message or email, then be sure to call up your coordinator as soon as the embassy opens the following day!

What Can I Do Right Now?

Earlier in the post I suggested focusing your effort on what you can do right now rather than what went wrong in the past. So what exactly can you do right now? The short answer is to just put JET as far from your mind as possible. Easier said than done, I realize, but it’s honestly the best thing you can do for your sanity. And I’ll admit, I had a really hard time with this one! I was constantly hanging around message boards for alternates and looking up stuff about Japan and teaching. The more time I spent focusing on JET, the more disappointed I was with each passing day that went by without being upgraded. It wasn’t until I completely “got over JET” that I got upgraded!

Ultimately I was able to distance myself from JET by doing the following. So I encourage you to:

  1. Do something you love! My favorite activities (other than travel) are gaming and working out. Therefore, to get my mind off JET I both bought a new game and increased my allotted workout time – allowing myself to be fully immersed in the activities. When involved in these things I completely forgot about JET!
  2. Study Japanese. I was a Japanese major in college and yet there’s always more to learn! Whether you’re a complete beginner or near-native speaker, studying the language will help you feel more connected to Japan. It’ll also help you to feel more confident in your ability to get around once you’re in Japan (whether it’s with or without JET!).
  3. Look into alternatives to JET. If you are anything like me, then you know that you definitely want to be in Japan. But you also don’t want to have to wait another year and endure another grueling JET application process! If that sums up your thinking then you’re in luck because there are tons of alternatives to JET!

I briefly mentioned one such alternative in my last post. If you’re feeling really adventurous (and have adequate money saved), you don’t even need to get a sponsor beforehand to come here! Look online for a monthly apartment, come over on a tourist VISA, and start networking! There are more than enough jobs for foreigners in Japan – particularly in Tokyo – but many require you to first be in Japan!

Once you realize that JET is not the only way to get here, it allows you to not need an upgrade to happen. It will put your mind at ease, and you may even discover that there are options that are more appealing to you! But just be careful because usually when you finally “let go” of JET you tend to get offered a position!

A version of this post appeared originally on my personal blog where I post about my experiences in Japan. I wanted to post this on both blogs in order to make it easier for my fellow alternates to find, as good resources on being a JET alternate are few and far between.

Author Bio
Hannah Azok

Hannah Azok

Hannah's just a crazy, fun-loving, Ohioan in Japan for the third time. She loves video games, working out, traveling, and ice cream! Her adventurous nature often lands her in some exciting, silly, and just plain awkward situations—but hey, they make for some great stories!

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