‘Our successes are never solely our own’

Thank you, President Watkins, faculty, fellow classmates and distinguished guests.

I moved to the states from Japan when I was 17, and whenever people ask me why, I tell them very candidly, “Because I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate from college—and I wanted to be a Disney Princess.” At least one of those dreams stuck.

College had never been an option for any of my older siblings, and it certainly had never been an option for me. I remember being seven and homeless, living out of a bulky cargo van with my parents and 11 siblings and just wanting to “go home” without any real sense of what “home” meant. Homework was a little difficult to do without the “home” aspect, and paying for rice was a little more of a priority than paying for tuition.

But I wanted it. I didn’t really know what college was. I’d read blogs. I’d seen movies. I’d heard about finals, and if that didn’t scare me, nothing was going to. So, I scraped and saved, and at 17, moved to the states with a grand, whopping total of $500 in my shoe. No, not in my pocket and, yes, in my shoe.

And I thought to myself, “I have moved to a country I’ve only seen in movies, with $500 in my shoe, and I am all alone in this. I have made a very large mistake.”

But $500 was not enough to buy a ticket back to Japan, and if this was a mistake, I was at least going to make it the biggest mistake I ever made. And, embracing the potentiality of mistakes is a beautiful thing. Even if you’ve turned every wrong corner and driven off into a ravine with a car, that in 2019, cannot fly yet (despite what “Back to the Future” told us)—it’s important to make mistakes because it means you’ve done something. And that is exceptional.

So, I got my GED, I passed the ACT, I joined my first semester and bawled every Monday and Wednesday after Math 1010. With my limited education, I was thoroughly confused as to why—in college—equations had alphabetical letters mixed in with the numbers. I turned in zero homework because I had no idea what “turning in homework” meant. I got a D on my first test. I had no money for a car, so I walked an hour to and from school every day. I began working two full-time jobs on top of full-time school. I ran out of fingernails to chew. And the worst part of all this was that, because I was the first of my family and friends to do this, I felt like I had no one to turn to. So again, I thought to myself, “I am alone in this.”

And then I thought, “But that is not going to stop me.”

If I believe anything in life, I believe that hard work is everything. I do not consider myself a very intelligent person, but I will work as hard as I need to in order to get a job done right. I finished that semester with two As and two Bs. I finished the next semester with three As and a B+. I finished the semester after that with four As, and that’s when I finally thought, “You know what? I can do this.”

And I did. Standing here now, I think to myself, “Alisa, you did it. Despite everything—all the hardships and the intermediate algebra, and the advanced algebra and the 500 other classes that use algebra—even though you were all alone, you did it.”

And then I stop. And I correct myself, “We did it.”

Because when I look back at the road that led me here—to this day—it’s paved with lamplights. And, not because I lit them, and not because I put them there, but because, from the beginning of that dark road, I have had people who have kept their arms high and their grips tight on those lamplights for me, lighting the way so I wouldn’t stumble.

  • My parents: Who taught me to take chances unapologetically.
  • My sisters: Who fought for my opportunities when no one else would.
  • My career advisor and sponsors: Who guided me when I couldn’t afford tuition.
  • My teachers: Who molded me.
  • Their TAs: Who tolerated me.
  • My classmates: Who kept me sane.
  • My friends: Who kept me humble.
  • The students and faculty I never met, who together, created this beautiful, exquisite, loving community that we call the University of Utah, and that I call home.

And that means the world to me—to be able to call a place “home.”

Because, when we think we are alone, that’s never true. If you remember nothing else but this—that’s enough. Our successes are never solely our own—they belong to the people who made our coffee in the morning, the people who helped us make our first resume and the people who stuck by our side even when we sobbed all the way through the last scene in “Toy Story 3.” And, you must remember that. I know I always will.

Remember to always be kind and to never underestimate the power you possess to be a light in the darkness. Remember to breathe. Remember, we have a duty to the people who have held our hand to prove to the universe that we are alive. And remember that we have fought for a place in this world, and we have made it, and we deserve to be here.

Congratulations, Class of 2019.