Undergraduate blog charts path for future career

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Jaered Koichi Croes ’08
    Jaered Koichi Croes ’08, in the foreground wearing a baseball cap, poses with staff at Tofugu.
  • Jaered interviews man who calls himself Homeless Kotani
    In 2017, Croes interviews a man known as Homeless Kotani, a Japanese ex-comedian who became “homeless” for a living and “rents” himself for 50 yen, or about 50 cents, a day to do whatever someone requests. Read the story here: https://www.tofugu.com/interviews/homeless-rental-kotani/.

Jaered Koichi Croes ’08 now runs a popular Japanese culture blog and app that teaches kanji.

When Jaered Koichi Croes ’08 was a junior at Willamette University, he launched his career. He just didn’t know it yet. 

The Japanese Studies major asked whether he could write a Japanese culture and language blog for credit. He called it Tofugu. That opportunity turned into a full-time job and years later, gave rise to a new company based in Portland with 15 employees working from around the world.

Independent projects like Croes’ are common at Willamette, which gives students the freedom to go beyond typical classroom learning. “I’m not sure I would have gotten that somewhere else,” he said. 

Campus activities apply to career

Croes didn’t have a plan for his major at first, but he felt that was the point: Pursuing an arts and science degree means exploring multiple subject areas.

On-campus opportunities led Croes to unexpected success. His interest in film led to  production courses and work at the rhetoric department (now known as Civic Communications and Media), where he helped students with video editing as a teacher’s assistant. 

He and a friend convinced a professor to allow them to make a film as an independent study project. The film was terrible, he said, but working with large numbers of people, learning about the equipment and figuring out how to do the whole process from start to finish ended up being invaluable.

“This experience helped me put together a YouTube channel that was in the top 10 in Japan at its peak,” he said. 

Small class sizes also made it easy to build relationships with professors. He had no acting experience but became a teacher’s assistant for Associate Professor of Theatre Jonathan Cole, who helped him think about how to teach and explain new concepts to different types of people, Croes said. 

Student organizations also proved to be a dry run for later professional attempts. During Croes’ first year, he launched a club for Japanese martial art kendo, which taught him how to start an organization, work with a funding committee and teach classes. Along the way, he met a lot of new people and saw the real outcome of his decisions — if he made a mistake, it affected himself and others, he said. 

Alumnus inspires next steps 

Networking at Willamette also paid off. 

A university program that paired students with alumni for a day led Croes to meet Adam DuVander ’01, a web developer at the time who is now principal consultant at EveryDeveloper in Portland. 

Croes instantly realized he wanted a career like DuVander’s. The day-long experience with the alum turned into a long friendship, gave him a 2007 internship collecting data and later “the confidence that I could build something and turn it into a company,” he said. 

After Croes graduated, he moved to San Francisco for an education start-up that offered live classes online. In addition to working for the company, he used the platform to teach Japanese and marketing classes to offset the cost of living. 

The start-up folded about a year after he arrived, but he was left with a lot of teaching experience and a good sense for what his brand of pedagogy might be, he said. 

Inspired to do his own work, he wrote a Japanese textbook and sold it online. From there he hired his first employee and continued to build better programs and resources for learning Japanese. In 2007, he started WaniKani, an app that not only teaches people kanji but how to learn it as well. He works on it today along with Tofugu. 

As a student at Willamette, Croes didn’t intentionally seek out activities to achieve a specific outcome. He used his time to apply what he learned or wanted to learn inside a supportive university experience. From his practice teaching in club activities to his role as a TA, he gained the support and expertise he needed to turn his interests into a successful company, he said. 

“The experiences at Willamette really did help make this all happen,” he said. “As I think back on the relationships with the students, professors and alumni, I realize it is everything that happened outside of the class — but still because of Willamette — that made my post-graduation life possible.” 

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