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Contemplate Travel and Work Abroad Before Grad School

Prepare Yourself With Advanced Research

Many college graduates who are not ready for the working world debate whether they should go straight to graduate school or travel after college. I chose to travel and found that the two choices are actually compatible.

I wanted my college language requirement to be fulfilled by something unusual and very different from anything else I had ever studied. I decided on Japanese. It was only after I had been studying it for a few semesters that I started to incorporate it with my major in religious studies. I was drawn to Japan and decided that before I attended graduate school for religious studies I needed to experience this country first hand. This would help me decide if this was my career path.

When I researched programs to teach English in Japan I found that teaching English as a second language there is a popular and relatively easy job to secure. Working gave me money to travel, a community of other foreigners, and the opportunity to get to know Japanese students. I chose the company Nova (editor's note: Nova has since closed, though other programs in Japan still exist) for its flexible hiring schedule and variety of locations in Japan. Soon I was set to leave for Japan at the end of the summer after graduation from college.

Before I left I researched graduate programs in religious studies and made sure to do as much of the application process for graduate school as I could. I wrote my personal statement, asked professors for recommendations, and got my transcripts ready.

That summer I also decided where I would live in Japan. I chose the island of Shikoku (the smallest of the main islands of Japan), because during my undergraduate study I had focused on a Japanese Buddhist figure called Kukai, and this was where he was raised. There is also an 88-temple pilgrimage dedicated to him on this island. One of my main goals was to complete this pilgrimage.

When I arrived, I soon started visiting the temples on this pilgrimage circuit and eventually finished it during my weekend holidays. I also visited other religious sites throughout Japan. I enjoyed my visits to the big Buddha statue in Kamakura, the Buddhist monasteries and temples on Mt. Koya and Mt. Hiei, the sacred waterfall in Nachi. I read up on all of the sites before I visited and bought any literature associated with the place while there. I treasured these items, knowing that they would be important resources for graduate study. I also documented my trips with many photographs, which I would later be able to show in graduate classes. Throughout my time in Japan I kept a traveler’s journal in order to keep the memory fresh.

I learned during the middle of my stay that my application to Harvard Divinity School was accepted. I would leave Japan at the end of the summer to start a 2-year Master of Theological Studies program. This made my study of sites and collecting documents even more intense.

When I arrived at Harvard Divinity School it was apparent that my travels had given me some credentials in the field of Japanese Buddhism. I was also able to give my class current information about the practice of Japanese Buddhism.

It was clear from talking to professors that those students who had not traveled would have to do so before they became serious about a scholarly career in the field. After all, how does a person know if he or she is interested in a field without living in the country where he or she will eventually have to spend so much time?

The first thing professors asked when I told them I was interested in a career in Japanese Buddhist studies was, “Have you been there?” They seemed pleased that I had—and that I had completed the Shikoku pilgrimage and visited Nara and Kyoto. Many professors told me this experience was an excellent foundation for future research.

Educational Programs in Japan

Japan Exchange and Teaching Program: www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/JET/.The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program seeks to help enhance internationalization in Japan by promoting mutual understanding between Japan and other nations. The program aims to enhance foreign language education in Japan and to promote international exchange at the local level by fostering ties between Japanese youth and foreign youth.

Naropa University Study Abroad Program in Sikkim: www.naropa.edu/studyabroad/sikkim/index.html. Naropa University’s Sikkim program focuses on the study, practice, and experience of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, students explore the arts, history, language, and contemporary social issues of Sikkim and the region.

Teaching English through Aeon in Japan: www.aeonet.com. For more than three decades the AEON Corporation of Japan has been an innovator in the field of English education, offering exceptional classroom and Internet opportunities to study and master the language. Founded in 1973, AEON has grown to become one of the largest and most respected private educational institutes of its kind with more than 3,000 employees. Current student enrollment exceeds 100,000 in more than 300 branch schools located within every prefecture of Japan. AEON employs a teaching staff of more than 800 teachers and education specialists from English-speaking nations.

The Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program in Taiwan: www.woodenfish.org. The Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program is a month-long program for college students interested in Buddhism. You will have the opportunity to study Buddhism while living as a monastic at a temple in Taiwan. Room and board is provided; you can receive college credit, and a grant is offered to compensate for travel expenses.