Student Spotlight: Carolina Leon-Valderrama

Carolina Leon-Valderrama, a recent graduate of Appalachian State University, is currently participating in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program and lives in Niigata Prefecture on Japan’s western coast. The JET program allows young professionals to be cultural ambassadors by serving as assistant language teachers (ALTs) in Japanese primary, middle and high schools.

We spoke with Carolina over a video call about the JET program and her life in Japan. Having studied Japanese in high school and at Appalachian State, Carolina was immediately interested in the JET program when she learned about it from Ms. Yamamoto, a Japanese instructor at the university. Carolina is glad that she started considering JET as a post-graduation possibility relatively early on, and when her university career began to come to a close, she was ready to start the application process. Though Carolina indicated that the application was no more difficult than other scholarships or jobs, the program is quite competitive and she felt that the assistance she received from her professors and from the office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships was invaluable. In particular, she met with NCS’s Johnna Reisner DeSantis weekly to learn about the application process, how to line up letters of recommendation, and edit essays. In Carolina’s own words, “I would not be here without Johnna.”

When asked about her work and life in Japan, Carolina was quick to emphasize that there is a broad diversity of experiences between different assistant language teachers. In her case, she lives in a rural setting and serves as an ALT for three different schools, two primary and one middle. Her responsibilities generally involve: reading and speaking English words and sentences to students, so that they can hear the pronunciation of a native English speaker; listening to students speak English and providing constructive feedback; and encouraging students as they practice this difficult language. As with many ALTs, this is Carolina’s first full-time professional employment and she is gaining many workplace skills that will be useful in her future career.

Carolina has not found life in Japan difficult, though there have been several things that have surprised or challenged her. Living in a rural area, Carolina had to test for an international driver’s license and learn to drive Japanese cars. In Japan, cars drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s seat is on the right. One aspect of her life that she particularly enjoys is her apartment, which is provided by the JET program. The apartment has several specifically Japanese elements, including sliding paper doors and a tatami room, which uses tatami mats as flooring.

In our conversation, Carolina mentioned several benefits to doing the JET program. She has gained valuable work experience, made friends with locals in her community and other ALTs, and experienced living in a culture very different from the one she grew up in. However, one thing that she particularly emphasized was the incredible memories she has already made in Niigata Prefecture. One that stands out is that she and some other ALTs met a woman on a train who invited them to join her taiko (Japanese drumming) group. Carolina played a traditional wooden flute alongside the taiko group in a local parade. She looks forward to making more memories like this one as her time in Japan continues.

Students can learn more about the JET program here. Those ready to start applying can make an appointment with App State’s office of Nationally Competitive Scholarships here.


About Nationally Competitive Scholarships
Nationally Competitive Scholarships (NCS) works with the Appalachian community to recruit and support students for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships, including those that support research, teaching and critical language learning. This is achieved with outreach, mentorship and advising throughout the entire application and selection process. NCS is committed to helping undergraduate and graduate students find ways to connect their Appalachian education to their future endeavors through scholarship opportunities. Learn more at

Compiled and Written by James Holden
October 30, 2023
Boone, N.C.

Carolina in Japan
Published: Oct 31, 2023 10:54am