Keli MacDonald is a Ball State alum who majored in both English Studies and Japanese. She also minored in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)/TOEFL. MacDonald is currently teaching abroad in Japan through a teaching exchange program. She credits her study abroad experience in Ireland with inspiring and preparing her to teach and travel.
Did you always know what it was you wanted to study?
Absolutely not. I came into my Ball State undergrad completely undecided, which was terrifying. I actually went over 18 years of my life rejecting the mere thought of becoming a teacher, so once I was at BSU and realized that’s what I actually wanted to be, I almost couldn’t believe it myself.
My first step towards realizing what I wanted to study was my love of reading and writing. I grew up with an English teacher for a mother, so I think that had a lot of underlying influence on my interest in English from a young age. However, for some reason, I really did not want to be a teacher, so being where I am now is almost comical.
What are the most important things you learned from being an English Studies major and TOEFL minor? How have they helped you after graduation?
Through my areas of study, I learned plenty of important information about language, teaching, and language teaching! I remember sitting in my classes completely engrossed in the content because it was just so interesting and new to me. I love that feeling, the feeling of enjoying what you’re learning.
However, I think the most important lesson I took away from my studies was this: making mistakes is human and completely necessary for learning not only a new language but also for learning anything in life. This helped me after graduation because I was thrust into a new, extremely unfamiliar country for my first job fresh out of college. My job (and daily life) is filled with unfamiliar people, language, and culture. Of course, in this situation, making mistakes is inevitable. In college, learning about how language is taught and learned really opened my eyes to how hard it actually is, and how much crap you have to screw up before you get it right. When speaking Japanese, I always strive to get my message across the best I can, well aware that I will make mistakes. But the thing is, my coworkers, students, and friends know I will make mistakes because it’s my second language that I’m still learning!
I try to get this message across to my students, too: don’t worry about making mistakes in the classroom or when you’re talking to me. I’m here to help you and encourage you! When learning a new language, the comfort zone needs to be broken. When living and working abroad, the comfort zone doesn’t exist. It’s going to be hard and awkward until it’s not.
How was studying abroad in Ireland? What did you learn there? How did that help you in your majors?
Studying abroad in Ireland was incredible. I had never been outside the country before, and I was traveling with a bunch of people I didn’t know, so it was a little intimidating at first. I knew I needed to break my comfort zone if I were going to travel more in the future and possibly start teaching, so I went on the Ireland trip to solidify that leaving the U.S.A was the path I wanted to take. It did not disappoint. I loved Ireland. I loved seeing a new culture and meeting new people and learning new things about a place I didn’t know. I loved reading and having class in a cool Irish college. I loved taking a weekend trip to London where we almost didn’t make it back to Ireland in time for class on Monday morning. I made some very close, lifelong friends on that trip, and came home with some very timeless stories. After Ireland, I knew my heart lied abroad, somewhere far away from what I’ve always called home. It really solidified the idea that, if I were to move far away from home after school, I would be OK.
You are currently teaching in Japan. How did you get there? What’s it like being there?
I took Japanese as a fun challenge in my first semester of freshman year. I was planning to take it as the Two-Year Foreign Language requirement for my major… but then I just didn’t stop.
I got to Japan with plenty of help from my advisors, mentors, and professors at Ball State, specifically the Japanese Department. The Japanese Department is small in numbers but big in heart, with amazing professors to whom I owe a lot of thanks. They are the ones who made me realize, “Wait, teaching your native language in a different country seems pretty cool!” They helped me see that language study can be fun AND effective. Most importantly, they showed me the importance of language and culture exchange. It was a very eye-opening time for me, and I found something I am incredibly passionate about.
Not to mention, Japan is absolutely amazing. Every day when I wake up, it feels like I’m still in a dream. Sometimes, I can’t believe I really live, work, and have a life in Japan. Each new day is an adventure, and I’m so grateful to be here.
What’s your favorite part about the career you’ve chosen? What else do you aim to do?
My favorite part is definitely the kids. They’re something else. Not only do I have a lot of fun in class, but I’ve also connected with a lot of them on a personal level. My Japanese is better than their English, but it’s still not fluent or near perfect. And yet, we still manage to communicate well. When we interact, they’ll practice speaking English with me, which I appreciate so much. They really try to communicate with me in my native language, even though English is scary and uncomfortable for them. On the other hand, when I practice my Japanese with the kids, they’ll patiently teach me new words or phrases I don’t know yet. They’ll even teach me about tiny cultural things, like popular games or which way the tray is supposed to face during lunchtime!
They may be my students in English class, but I’m their students when it comes to anything Japanese. I grow as a person and learn something new every single hour, which makes my job fulfilling in more ways than one.
I want to continue teaching English abroad. As much as I love it here in Japan, I’d also really like to teach in other countries to learn about other cultures and how different languages function. I am also planning to get my M.A. in the future (likely from Ball State!). I can even see myself becoming a professor one day in the States. I have a lot of plans, but nothing is set in stone until the time comes to put them into action. I’ll see where the wind takes me – I happily look forward to my future.
Do you have any advice for current students?
My advice is that sometimes things suck. Sometimes life is going to suck. Surround yourself with good people, do the things you enjoy doing, and take care of yourself. There are many things that are impossible to change, but the one thing you do have control over is yourself.