Global experiences lead art alumna to teach in Japan

Mikayla Zulkoski in Nakameguro, a residential district in Tokyo, Japan, in the spring of 2019.
Mikayla Zulkoski in Nakameguro, a residential district in Tokyo, Japan, in the spring of 2019.

Global experiences lead art alumna to teach in Japan

calendar icon19 Nov 2021    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Mikayla Zulkoski in Paris, France, in the spring of 2018.
Mikayla Zulkoski in Paris, France, in the spring of 2018.

Lincoln, Neb.--Mikayla Zulkoski, who graduated from the School of Art, Art History & Design last May with majors in art and global studies, is leaving in January for up to a year to return to Japan to teach through the JET program (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program).

The JET Program is a competitive employment opportunity that allows young professionals to live and work in cities, towns and villages throughout Japan. Most serve as Assistant Language Teachers and work in public and private schools throughout Japan.

She has not received her placement yet, but will be there from six months to a year.

“I had an internship where I taught Japanese through global studies,” she said. “I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed teaching. Because I also studied another language—I studied French—it was nice to be on the side of teaching and getting people excited about my culture via language.”

She was in Japan previously in the spring of 2019 in Matsudo in Chiba Prefecture, where she taught at Senshu Matsudo Junior and Senior High. It was a spur of the moment decision to go there.

“In Global Studies, two people get that internship a semester. I was at the Global Studies end-of-year get together in December, and my advisor was there. We got to talking, and she was kind of stressed because one of the interns dropped out to go to England instead for a different program. She was like, ‘I have to send another intern,’ and I was like, ‘I’m not doing anything,’" Zulkoski said. “I filled out the paperwork and got accepted, and I got to go. And then I landed, and I realized it was my first time living all by myself, that it was a foreign country to me where I didn’t speak the language. But it was amazing. I’m so glad I went there.”

In the spring of 2018 as a sophomore, Zulkoski also studied abroad in Montpelier, France, for four months.

“I studied French and international business,” she said. “And of course, I got to see all the art there as well. I was also able to take a trip up to Paris and visit there.”

She stayed with a host in France.

“It actually ended up just being one French grandmother, and she was absolutely amazing,” Zulkoski said. “She was very nice, very outgoing, and she had been hosting for a while so she knew the routine. It was my first time leaving the country ever, so she was good to push me out of my bubble a little bit.”

Studying abroad helped expand Zulkoski’s world view.

“It influenced me a lot. I would definitely say I grew more in the four months abroad in France than I did in my entire high school. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska [Burwell]. There’s about 1,300 people there maybe at most. And everyone looks the same. Everyone has the same religion,” she said. “[At UNL] I made friends with a bunch of international students. It made me realize that I really wanted to learn more and go abroad and have the different experience. I had been around people who had come to America to study, and now I was the person going to a different country to study.”

Study abroad was everything people told her it would be.

“They were like, you’re going to have some culture shock, and yeah, I did. And they were like, there’s going to be a period around two or three months in where the language clicks, and it did,” she said. “And it was a big confidence booster to be like, yes, I went abroad to this foreign country, all by myself. I’m studying and keeping my grades up all by myself. It broadened my horizons about how much of the world there is and how much I actually need to learn and need to see.”

She encourages any student to consider studying abroad.

“Absolutely, and there are ways to help you go. I know for a lot of people funding is the most daunting part, and I would say go earlier in your time. You will have more opportunities for different scholarships,” she said.

Zulkoski continues to make art, as well. Three of her embroidery pieces will be included in an upcoming exhibition exploring contemporary embroidery that Associate Professor of Art Sandra Williams is curating at the Sanford Museum in Cherokee, Iowa.

“I come from a family of seamstresses, but I was never one for measuring and numbers,” she said. “So I found embroidery was just a way to get that needle and thread and just be able to create. And it wasn’t so exact, that I can change things as I was going and just make what I want. You see embroidery traditionally as women’s work, and I was taking that and making it into something that would be considered art, and not just something kitschy or something sold on Etsy.”

Williams said she enjoyed working with Zulkoski.

“I love the enthusiasm with which she embraced every opportunity that came her way,” Williams said. “She understands that time management can be your best friend—or your worst enemy. She applied for university and national education abroad grants and awards and performed admirably in a national competition. The depth of her interest and intensity of her dedication is evident in her love of travel. In addition to having a fresh, exciting body of artwork, she is also dedicated to picking up new languages, whether that be through formal UNL classes in French and Russian, learning Chinese from her roommates, or the ‘hit the ground running’ method in her travels to Japan. She is fearless."

Zulkoski came to Nebraska to study the School of Art, Art History & Design because they were willing to accommodate her interest in embroidery.

“There’s no one in Nebraska who is going to teach me embroidery, and I found that UNL was the most accommodating,” she said. “They said we’ll put you in a mixed media class or a sculpture class, and the professor will just work around you. I found their willingness to work with their students rather than around their students really important. And I have had so many amazing professors like Sandra [Williams], Eddie [Dominguez], Santiago [Cal]. All of them just really worked with me rather than trying to put me in a box.”

Zulkoski was also a first-generation college student.

“My Dad went to a trade school, and my Mom went to beautician school, and so they both had their trades,” she said. “Seeing them always work hard to provide for me and my siblings, I realized I wanted to be able to go to college and get a good job, make lots of money so I could provide for them when they were older. I wanted to repay them. And I also wanted to do more than I thought I could do. I’m from a small town. I didn’t have a big horizon, and at the end of the day, I just really wanted to learn. And so going to college, going abroad twice and graduating with the double major and the foreign language under my belt, it was really fulfilling. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

In the future, Zulkoski wants to teach and to continue making art and maybe even work for a non-profit in Lincoln like Lincoln Literacy or the Asian Cultural Community Center.

“I’m really kind of down for anything. I’m going to see where life takes me,” she said. “I’ve always been a go-with-the-flow person, so if an opportunity comes up, I’ll go for it.”