“If you go to the United States, I won’t be able to take care of you when you get sick.” That’s what my mom said during my senior year in high school while filling out my college application. We were living in Venezuela at the time. My parents were used to moving around, but they weren’t used to me moving away from them.
Growing Up Overseas
Originally from Japan, my dad was an expatriate working for a Japanese company. Our family moved around between several countries to conduct business per the company’s directive. From the time I was 3 years old to the time I was 9 years old, we lived in Canada. While living there, I was simultaneously learning English, French, and Japanese. At home, I spoke only Japanese, so it was difficult learning contrasting languages at school. However, these years were formative in that I discovered my innate drive to learn. Powering through this rigorous early education helped give me the confidence that I’d later lean on in college.
I then spent my pre-teen years in Japan until my family moved to Caracas, Venezuela, where I attended an international middle and high school. As a high school student, I associated the U.S. with freedom—and I imagined that it was the kind of place where I’d have the opportunity to live independently. With this in mind, I submitted all of my college applications to schools in the U.S. I thought I was equipped and mentally ready for this move; however, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hurdling Over Obstacles
Even before coming to the U.S., I had many hurdles to overcome. For instance, to obtain a student visa, I needed to go to the U.S. embassy and provide a wide array of information. I was asked to fill out various forms, provide bank statements to ensure that I had enough funds to sustain myself, and provide a letter from the college I was set to attend. The layers of complex bureaucracy that I faced—as a teenage girl seeking a better life—made me take stock of my blessings, such as speaking English as a second language, and showed me that being an international student takes tremendous initiative and guts right from the get-go.
Having completed the necessary prerequisites, at the age of 18 I finally attended the college of my choice. The prospect of gaining some independence from my parents, who adhere to traditional Japanese cultural standards, was exciting. As my first semester grew closer, I found myself dreaming of the freedom and independence that life in the U.S. promised. However, I soon realized that being 8,000 miles away from my parents didn’t come without its drawbacks.
Over the course of my first semester, I found myself incredibly lonely, especially in light of the considerable cultural barriers that stood between my peers and me. As one of the only international students in a class of 300, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. Beyond the difficult social climate that I faced, I also encountered fiscal difficulties. Being an international student, I was only allowed to work a federal work-study job at the college information technology (IT) lab. The program prevented me from accruing excess income after my school fees were paid. Since I didn’t have the money to go home during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, I was forced to stay at school, unlike most other students. This conundrum only added to my feelings of isolation. I even struggled with things many people take for granted—the simple task of doing my laundry induced anxiety, as I wasn’t familiar with the pay-per-cycle style of laundromats. The accumulation of these problems, large and small, taxed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined before beginning my studies here.
Eventually, I reached out to the international student office. They suggested getting a driver’s license, a social “must-have” living in rural Vermont. However, obtaining a license and car was outside the scope of the international office. I was forced to figure out how to apply for a learner’s permit, get a license, and buy a car in this foreign environment. My school was small enough to give me individual attention, which was vital as my English wasn’t strong. However, looking back, a school with more resources for students like me may have been a better fit. Regardless, I powered through the experience and learned a lot in the process.
Finding My Way to Speech-Language Pathology
I earned my Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from a small liberal arts college in Vermont. After which, I got a full-time job as a jewelry sales associate. The appraiser there recognized my interest in gemstones and suggested I pursue gemology. At my coworkers’ advice, I went back to school in New York City to become a gemologist and earned my graduate gemologist certificate. Through my work as a gemologist, I was granted the opportunity to travel the world and train local gemologists in Africa. While there, I was struck by the lack of social services for children. I particularly felt for the children who were hard of hearing. I thought back to my own time in school—learning multiple languages—and wished that I had received more individualized attention from teachers and other professionals too. Both of these factors were the impetus for me to pursue a career through which I could help others in a meaningful way.
After 5 years of working as a gemologist, my husband received an enticing job offer that would require us to move to Japan, so we packed up our things and left New York. In Japan, I worked as an English teacher. At the time, I felt that this was the helping profession I wanted to pursue a career in. However, it was also during this time, I gave birth to my daughter. When she was about 2 years old, I noticed that she wasn’t producing the two-word utterances expected of a child her age. In noticing this delay in my own child, and remembering the struggles that I faced as a young girl in school, I began to seriously consider pursuing a career in speech-language pathology. I wanted to help parents like me and children like my daughter—and my younger school-girl self, who needed individualized attention but who instead got overlooked.
When my daughter was 11 months old, we moved back to New York. As I transitioned to raising my daughter in New York City, one of the first things I did was search for a Japanese-speaking speech-language pathologist (SLP). I couldn’t find a single one! It dawned on me that there was a considerable gap; we need more bilingual SLPs. And then, something else dawned on me: Not only was I interested in becoming an SLP, but I was also bilingual myself! At that point, I decided to pursue a second career, and I applied to a speech-language pathology degree program at a local college. As a bilingual person, I understand how bilingual children learn. I understand the negative emotions that can accompany the feeling of being ignored, the sense that (however true or untrue it is) teachers and others consider you “unimportant.” This, unfortunately, is an experience that many English language learners share, and one that I have experienced as well. These strong emotions and life experiences keep me grounded and drive me toward my goal, and I believe that they will help me develop into a strong SLP.
Becoming a Bilingual SLP
I am currently a speech-language pathology graduate student at CUNY Lehman College, pursuing a bilingual extension in Japanese-English. I am also serving as the Vice President for Finance on the National NSSLHA Executive Council and spearhead the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Action (IDEA) Workgroup to better recognize student intersectional diversity at US colleges and universities and increase opportunities to educate students about cultural competence, humility, and awareness of privilege. Simultaneously, I am parenting my daughter and working part-time in the billing department at a speech clinic in New York.
Once I finish graduate school and become an SLP, it will be my second career, and this latest endeavor is a product of a journey of learned experiences. Adapting to American culture was a shock. While literally learning to be an adult, I also became more confident in English, and I began to “fit in” socially. Whenever the odds were against me, it always seemed like a better idea to go back to Japan. However, I feel happy that I stuck with it because I learned a lot along the way—especially as I continue on my current path to becoming an SLP, a career that will grant me the opportunity to help those in need. I don’t want children to feel the same way I did when learning English. I want bilingual children and English language learners to understand that their struggles are not unique and that caring, committed people are standing by to help them along the way.
I’m a nontraditional student who discovered what I really wanted to do only after undergoing many obstacles. In some ways, I envy my current graduate school cohorts who “knew” what they wanted to do much earlier in their lives—during their initial undergraduate years. However, I know that the winding road that’s brought me here today has given me tenacity: Layers of extra spice and flavor help me keep up with other graduate students while allowing me to be unique.
Advice for Other Nontraditional Students
For those contemplating graduate school or a career change, I offer two pieces of advice: First, don’t shy away from your urge to learn. Your hard work, drive, and learned experiences that you have acquired over the years will only serve to help you succeed. You may not have your family and friends right there to physically take care of you, but their role is still crucial—directly or indirectly—to your future success.
Second, utilize all of your school’s resources. Because my first degree wasn’t in a science field, in order to become an SLP, I first had to obtain a second bachelor’s degree—this one in communication disorders. While pursuing that second bachelor’s degree, I felt so overwhelmed and began to doubt my ability to succeed academically. So, I went to the college tutoring and writing center and sought help. The staff at the tutoring center acted as my accountability coach, helped me turn in my work on time, and helped me improve my writing. As a result, I maintained a high GPA, which directly contributed to my ability to continue my studies as a graduate student. And, I’m well on my way: I’m proud to say that I will earn my graduate degree in September 2023. I plan to pursue my PhD and conduct research to create more bilingual assessments, something that is greatly needed in our field. I also plan to work with the preschool and school-age population as an SLP.
My mom was right all those years ago when I was a senior in high school, planning to attend college in the U.S. She was right when she said, “If you go to the United States, I won’t be able to take care of you when you get sick.” But I went anyway. And in the process, I learned a powerful lesson: I can take care of myself.