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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Graduate Accepted to Prestigious Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program

Teenagers frequently look around for something a little different to latch onto, an interest that separates them from their peers. For most people, that interest wanes as they get a bit older, because everyday matters like school and work take precedence.

And then, there is Melissa Bitter.

Bitter, who graduated in May from Old Dominion University with a degree in international relations, has turned her teenage obsession - the country of Japan - into a full-time job. The 22-year-old has been accepted to the prestigious Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.

"I'm so excited. I just can't wait," said Bitter, who will be making her fourth trip to Japan when she leaves in August for her renewable one-year contract working in the Pacific Rim country.

The JET program, run by the Japanese government, hires top students from English-speaking countries around the world to provide top-notch English as a Second Language instruction to primary and middle school students. Run by that country's federal civil service, the JET program is highly competitive, with fewer than 800 students per year being accepted from the United States. Thousands apply. Bitter recently found out she will be working in Izumo City, a rural city in western Japan on the coast of the Japan Sea.

Bitter fell in love with Japan as a teenager growing up in Virginia Beach, first with the music, then other aspects of Japanese culture and history.

"I'm a Navy brat, so I've always been interested in other cultures," said Bitter, who graduated from Kellam High School in 2008. "Japanese music was so different artistically, and I loved the sound of the language."

Bitter took part in a summer exchange trip to Japan during high school, and it only further motivated her desire to live there. Once she arrived at Old Dominion, she sought out the university's Office of International Programs (OIP) to do what she could to immerse herself in Japanese culture, with an eye to going back someday.

"ODU, and especially OIP, has been very helpful and supportive in making my dream come true," she said.

Bitter did a semester exchange at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, a semester that ended prematurely in March 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami devastated the country. Though she was 1,000 miles away from the earthquake epicenter, and felt only small tremors, the experience of collective national mourning was very moving for her. "It was definitely very emotional. Japan is so small, it's like a big U.S. state in terms of size. Everyone knows someone who was affected."

Her semester was canceled, but Bitter said the OIP went above and beyond to make sure she met the course requirements to graduate in time this past May. After working what she hopes are two, renewable one-year contracts as a teacher in Japan, Bitter wants to earn her master's, and hopes to one day work in an office like the OIP, so she can help other young students realize their passion for experiencing foreign lands, just as she did.

"This is such a small world, when you think about it," she said.

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