From Anime to Life in International Education

When I was in elementary school, my class was asked to re-create a country’s flag and to share something interesting about the country selected. I picked Japan because I thought it looked easy. I had no idea that that “easy flag” project would impact my life so significantly and be the driving force that leads me to international education. 

Building those relationships thrilled me, and I wondered if I could make a career out of it. The answer was YES!

Through my project, I learned about Japanese animated cartoons (anime) and graphic novels (manga). Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, and a variety of manga were my life throughout elementary, middle, and high school. As silly as it may seem, those stories taught me to value people and friendships, to never give up on my dreams, and to be okay with feeling a little different. It was those lessons that kept me confident as I navigated my high school years. 

I was known as “the strange black girl who liked weird Japanese stuff.” But I eventually found others who liked “weird Japanese stuff,” which inspired me to create my high school’s anime club. The success of creating and managing the anime club throughout my high school years allowed me to leverage my experience to convince my undergrad to allow me to start an East Asian cultural club during my freshman year. Soon after, I made friends with every international student on my small campus, and I was eventually appointed the Vice President of our college’s international student organization (despite not being an international student). 

By the time I graduated undergrad, I had experience in student immigration, teaching, program development, mentorship, intercultural communication, foreign language, and international travel.

Building those relationships thrilled me, and I wondered if I could make a career out of it. The answer was YES! But there was one problem… my college did not have any international majors. So I created one. 

First, I volunteered to be a teaching assistant and international student leader for first-year international students. I used that work experience to justify to my school board why I should be able to develop a new academic major and after combining communication, political science, psychology, and Chinese courses — I became the only International studies major at my college. I also like to think I’m the reason my small college has the major to this day (You’re welcome!)

Being the only person with my major allowed me to have several flexibilities. I decided to study in Japan for a semester of my junior year, and during my senior year, I participated in a three week cultural trip to China. During my summers back home, I convinced my hometown’s university to give me their “graduate students only” internship position in their immigration office. That experience allowed me to learn a bit about higher education, student affairs, and international student visas.

By the time I graduated undergrad, I had experience in student immigration, teaching, program development, mentorship, intercultural communication, foreign language, and international travel. For graduate school, I picked a university that allowed me to live in China while working full time. I was able to secure a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages)  certificate and taught English and western culture to Chinese students in kindergarten, elementary school, and college. I also worked part-time at a Chinese au pairing company and developed materials and interviewed foreign au pairs interested in working in China. 


My growing work experience and the specialty I created brought me back to the US, where I began working as an international programming coordinator at the same university I interned during my undergraduate summers. It was coming back full circle. 

While working at the university, I joined several professional organizations (which I’ll share in a later post) and enrolled in my doctorate program. Fast forward to five years, a few international trips, moving to a new location, and two jobs later… I am the professional I am today! 

So what exactly did I learn through it all?

#1: Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Asking allowed me to create my own student clubs, my own major, and my own internship! Just because it doesn’t exist or you don’t meet the requirements or have the support, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Believe in yourself and make. It. HAPPEN!

#2: Hobbies can become work experience. Just because you do it for fun, doesn’t mean you aren’t learning something out of it. Put it on your resume! My hobbies are what propelled me into the field, and the experience made people feel comfortable with saying yes to me! 

#3: Don’t give into the pressure of others. Sometimes, you may be the only person who knows what you’re talking about. But if it feels right, don’t let anyone change your mind. When I was figuring out my major, my family tried to pressure me into government or foreign service. But I wanted to learn about PEOPLE, CULTURE, the WHY behind what makes people tick. So I kept pushing until I found what I was looking for in a career, NOT what other people assumed I met. 

#4: Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone. It can be uncomfortable, scary, and intimidating, and that’s okay! I took a few routes to find what worked for me and it made me a stronger person.

#5: Be consistent. Although I worked in a variety of international educational fields, I did not go too far from the path. Having consistency in my area of expertise is what attracted employers to me. Instead of having one or two years of experience under my belt, I had at least five years of experience before I even secured my first “US professional” career job. 

#6: Join every group, every club, every meeting, every room. Don’t let anyone ever leave you out. I invited myself to so many activities that people had no choice but to invite me. I always showed up! If you can’t be an advocate for yourself, how do you expect others to be one for you?

Believe in yourself — the worst thing someone can say to you is no. And there are only other avenues from there 🙂 

Dr. Shawntia Key (CEO, URep Abroad) is an international educator with more than 10+ years of experience in strategic planning, program development, student advising, curriculum design, and intercultural competency. Learn more about Dr. Key’s experiences at

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