Alright, folks, you know how this goes. Our third and final Alumni Spotlight for this season is Emily Kawahara ’12, a tennis-playing international traveler and philosophy guru. Keep reading to find out her Pitzer story and what she is up to now.
Year of Graduation: 2012
Majors: 1. English and World Literature, emphasis in Creative Writing 2. Philosophy
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
High School: C.K. McClatchy High School
Current Job: International Student Intake Advisor at UC Davis
Pitzer Activities: Pomona-Pitzer Varsity Tennis for 4 years, APAC (Asian Pacific American Coalition) sponsor and head sponsor, Writing Center tutor, study abroad in Nepal
Best friend of Mattie Ross (Assistant Director of Admission here at Pitzer and a member of the Class of 2012)
K: Thinking back to when you were a junior or senior in high school, what made you choose Pitzer?
E: So I did the whole Southern California trip with my mom, and we were on our way to Redlands, going on the 10, and we saw the sign for the Claremont Colleges. She mentioned that she had read about them in a college magazine. The first school we pulled up to happened to be Pitzer, and as soon as I got out of the car and stepped on campus I kind of knew. I don’t know what it was about it…maybe it was the landscape, maybe it was just a really perfect day in Claremont, but I got out of the car and just felt really at home. And then we went to the Office of Admission, talked with the admission counselor (I found out later that was actually my interview), and learned that they had a Creative Writing program, which I was definitely interested in. I was thinking about doing Philosophy but I wasn’t sure about it yet. The other thing was that I wanted to play tennis. I learned they had a Division III team – a top 10 team in the nation – and once I started reading a little bit more about the coach and what the team had done, it just seemed like a really great fit. I did an overnight stay with one of the girls on the team, Zoe. And I spent a lot of my stay with one of the girls another teammate, Alex Margolin, who was a senior when I was a freshman, and we’re still incredibly good friends. I’m actually going to be in her wedding next year. I kept in touch with her and all of the team throughout the application process…it was my first choice the entire time.
I don’t know what it was about it…maybe it was the landscape, maybe it was just a really perfect day in Claremont, but I got out of the car and just felt really at home.
K: What were the main things you got involved in and why did you involve yourself in those activities while at Pitzer?
E: Well the first one was definitely tennis. I had been playing since I was really young, and I knew I wanted to keep playing, but I knew that education was really important too, which is why I looked mainly at DIII schools. So I was on the team for all four years while I was there, and that took up almost all of my time. My freshman year I worked for the Office of Admission, giving campus tours, sitting at the front desk with Lesley, filing and all that. My sophomore year I was an overnight coordinator in the Office of Admission, and that was fun because I coordinated prospective student visits and spoke to students and parents about how great Pitzer is. I went abroad junior year, and when I came back I got a job at the Writing Center because I knew that I wanted to do something more along those lines. The other thing I was really involved with was APAC (the Asian Pacific American Coalition) – I was a sponsee my freshman year, and my sponsor was actually my teammate, Alex. My sophomore and junior year I was an APAC sponsor, and then my senior year I was the Head APAC sponsor. I also did the study abroad program in Nepal in the fall of 2010.
You found the hidden message!
K: So what made you want to get involved in things like APAC and study abroad?
E: I’m half Japanese and half Scandinavian, and I’ve always really identified with my Japanese heritage and culture. When I got to Pitzer on move-in day, I had a bunch of APAC sponsors help me move in. They were all really welcoming and nice, and invited me to their meetings. It took me a little while actually to start going to the meetings, but then I started understanding how important it was to really get a sense of your identity, that’s really what college is all about. So I learned a lot about the culture that I thought I already knew. And I got to meet a bunch of people from all different backgrounds; some were first generation students, some have families that have been here for a long time but still, like me, stay true to their Asian culture even though they may not appear that way on the outside. That’s why APAC had a huge impact on me and was a lot of what I did.
Studying abroad was one of the selling points for Pitzer. I knew I wanted to go abroad; I had caught the travel bug in high school when I participated in an ambassador program. I originally planned on going to France or Morocco. I went to the Study Abroad Office, got the paperwork for France and Morocco, and as I was leaving some other student came in that I had never met and struck up a conversation because everyone at Pitzer is so nice and always does that. They basically said, I don’t know where you are thinking about going, but you should go to Nepal. And I said that I didn’t even know where Nepal was. He said it will change your life – you have got to go to Nepal. So I put down the paperwork I got, and picked up the Nepal one. I didn’t even know where it was, I didn’t look it up or anything. I just applied. I ended up going, and by far it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. That was awesome because that was the first time I really understood what college is about – the whole idea of taking that deliberate step into the unknown. And that’s something I’ve tried to keep doing ever since I left.
“I didn’t even know where it was, I didn’t look it up or anything. I just applied. I ended up going, and by far it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
K: What are some other ways you stepped into the unknown while you were here are or after graduating? That’s something I think Pitzer students are really good at, or at least they find ways to do more of that than students at other colleges.
E: Definitely. Well after I got back from studying abroad, I knew I was interested in traveling abroad, living abroad, and putting myself in uncomfortable cross-cultural situations. So that’s why I had applied to a whole bunch of scholarships and grants for working and living abroad after graduating. I was lucky enough to be offered a Fulbright, so I ended up doing a teaching Fulbright in Thailand. While I was on the Fulbright, I traveled quite a bit to different south Asian countries, and that’s actually why I am doing what I’m doing now. I found out I was interested in international education, and I knew I had to get that real world base understanding first before looking for a position where I could be a change maker.
I found out I was interested in international education, and I knew I had to get that real world base understanding first before looking for a position where I could be a change maker.
K: Can you describe what you do now?
E: I work for UC Davis, with the Services for International Students and Scholars. I am an International Student Intake Adviser, so I basically help students understand and stay within their legal status while they are in the U.S. It’s a lot of student advising. So if there’s a student here that wants to say, travel for a vacation, so not back to their home country and not somewhere in the U.S., they come in and talk to me about what they need to do to make sure they have the right travel documents and are in good standing, or that their U.S. Visa isn’t going to expire before they get back…From studying abroad and from working abroad, I know that there was a lot of paperwork, a lot of rules and regulations I wasn’t aware of, and a lot of those situations can be really uncomfortable situations because you just don’t know where the line is, or it’s in a language you’re not fluent in. So that first interaction can really either make or break their time here, or it can negatively affect the experience from the very beginning. I’m the first face or the first voice for international students, making sure information is clearly explained, so that students are understanding exactly what they need to stay legal here, because there are just so many crazy and complex rules. So that’s pretty much what I do now!
K: So are you planning on staying in this field to continue to help international students in Higher Ed? Or do you have an idea of where you might want to go from here?
E: What I might want to do is go back and work for IIE or Fulbright, or work more at a policy level, but I really enjoy working in Higher Ed for now. I want to see what’s happening at the base level – what’s working and what’s not – and where students get confused. I want to understand what rules are put in place and why. And then maybe figure out what can be done to make it easier for students…I guess that kind of goes back to the Pitzer Core Value of Intercultural Understanding. You can’t have Intercultural Understanding if there are rules that people don’t know about; you can’t really have an environment to foster this understanding if people are uncomfortable when traveling abroad because they are afraid they might fall out of legal status. So I’m really happy where I’m starting, but I know there’s a whole ladder to climb, and there are a lot of other rules I won’t be made aware of until later. So hopefully I’ll be able to work more in the policy or government area in the future.
K: Let’s talk about how you’ve remained connected to Pitzer as an alumnae – are there ways you’ve managed to either come to campus or stay connected in other ways?
E: Yeah, I think tennis is really the main way. I feel that in playing a sport you’re part of a team for four years and for life; you want to know how they’re doing because each player is your teammate, whether or not you were actually on the team together, so I definitely stay updated on how the tennis team is. Now we can see videos of their final points (thanks to Jeremy and the Pomona-Pitzer Athletics Facebook page), which has been great. I was there a couple months ago now and watched some matches over spring break. I’m always excited any time I get the opportunity to go back to Pitzer. I got to go to the 50th Anniversary last year, and that was awesome. I try to keep updated as much as I can on everything that is happening there because it’s such a great college; you feel that sense of pride, even when you’re not there anymore.
K: What would you say was your biggest challenge while you were at Pitzer? And what helped you overcome it?
E: I’d say kind of like what we talked about before, just taking that big step – a deliberate big step into the unknown. When I went to Pitzer I knew I was going to be playing tennis, I knew I was going to be taking English or Literature classes, I had a pretty good focus on what I wanted to do, mainly Creative Writing…but I also learned to make the time to fit in other random things too. I had a pretty packed schedule between working and APAC and tennis and classes. The philosophy major was actually really random – I was interested in ethics and ended up taking a bunch of philosophy classes for fun, and in my junior year during office hours with one of my favorite professors, Julie Tannenbaum at Pomona, she asked me why I wasn’t majoring in philosophy. She knew I was only a couple classes short. One of the main reasons was that I didn’t want to take Logic, and another reason was that I was just really intimidated in every single class I took. I was really interested in the theories and how they were applied, but I would go and sit in the back and talk as minimally as I needed to. And she pretty much told me to suck it up and that I should just do it if it was something I cared about. I actually took a Seminar class with her that started out with 20 people, and by the second week I think we were down to maybe 4 or 5 – it was such a hard class that everyone just dropped it. Philosophy classes were generally mostly male, and I was the only girl left in that Seminar class. So she helped me make that deliberate step towards diving into an unknown by adding the philosophy major, and I feel that again it goes back to the Pitzer Core Values (by the way, Pitzer is so good at maintaining its mission throughout the entire time you’re there, from the moment you get there until the moment you leave)…I think I just learned how to do the things that I cared about without knowing exactly where it would lead – because a lot of people will talk and say things like “I like doing this, but I’m not really going to do anything about it”. I think that the education I got and my interactions with my professors really made me able to take a deliberate next step in solving a problem. If you have a plan, you need to stick to it, and rather than just telling everyone, you need to show it by action. I think that that wasn’t something I was as used to when I got to Pitzer.
I think that the education I got and my interactions with my professors really made me able to take a deliberate next step in solving a problem.
K: Are there ways you’ve seen the Core Values play out in your life after college?
E: The Core Value of Intercultural Understanding has really guided me since graduating. After my Fulbright, I had a tough time coming back to America because reverse culture shock was way worse than culture shock. Then I had a hard time finding a job because I was torn between getting a job that I cared about and getting a job just because I needed to pay off my student loans. I knew that I wanted to have some sort of positive effect on the global community, and I knew that I wanted to get involved in international education…you can’t just walk in and say this is what I think needs to improve or this is what needs to be worked on. You need to start at the bottom. So I feel that I’ve always kept the end goal of promoting Intercultural Understanding in mind, and that’s why I like to think that what I do I do with a purpose. There’s a reason why I got the job at Davis, first in programming and outreach, and there’s a reason why I decided that within that department I wanted to switch over and do international student advising. So instead of doing the programming and outreach which I was really used to from being in APAC, I wanted to get more into the government and immigration policy side of it. I think Intercultural Understanding has kind of been my catch phrase since I was a senior and applying to Fulbright and all of those programs. It’s an important framework to keep in mind in this growing global community, and I think Pitzer does a really good job of introducing that. Especially being at Davis, there’s a huge population – way bigger than Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges – and unfortunately I think there are a lot of people that think that international students are taking up the places of California residents, or international students are taking all of these opportunities for Americans, and it’s really unfortunate because that’s one very shallow perspective of what’s happening. What’s really happening is you now have the opportunity, without even going abroad, to learn about cultures from all of the international students and scholars who are taking advantage of the available exchange programs. So I think that the idea of Intercultural Understanding has really stuck with me in everything I’ve done. I’ve even taken some programs I ran in APAC and altered them for trainings and workshops here at Davis.
K: Do you have any advice for current, prospective, or admitted Pitzer students about college in general?
E: I think it’s really important to be honest with what you want in your college, meaning what you want from your education but also from your experience as a whole. I appreciated Pitzer while I was there, but I don’t think I really truly appreciated it until after I left. Since graduating, I’ve met people who attended a variety of other colleges, and from discussions I’ve had with them, it’s clear that the education from Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges is something you can’t get anywhere else. We, as Claremont College alumni and students, have these opportunities that I think we sometimes take for granted – like the ability to study abroad on programs like the Nepal program, or Botswana or Costa Rica, on programs that aren’t exchanges. You are living with families and not just going to universities. I think just knowing that you have a choice in what you want to do is important. If it’s really important for you to go to a big school and be lost among that, or go to a small school and have that experience where it’s an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio…either way I think it’s super important to keep in mind that it’s really about the experience as a whole. I was applying for this graduate program recently, writing all of these essays, and I had to get letters of recommendation. I asked Kathy Yep, who I actually never had as a professor but she was just an amazing mentor for APAC and for life in general. I still talk to her, so I sent her a text super last minute and asked her for a letter of recommendation. My friends who went to bigger schools told me that there’s no way that three years out of college they could text a professor that they didn’t even have, or even one that they did have in college, to ask them for a letter of recommendation and expect to get anything back. There’s nothing wrong with going to a big school or going to a small school – there are so many great options out there, though I am super biased.
Since graduating, I’ve met people who attended a variety of other colleges, and from discussions I’ve had with them, it’s clear that the education from Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges is something you can’t get anywhere else. We, as Claremont College alumni and students, have these opportunities that I think we sometimes take for granted – like the ability to study abroad on programs like the Nepal program, or Botswana or Costa Rica, on programs that aren’t exchanges.
K: What is it like working at a much larger university after going to such a small college? Do you think about that when you’re working there?
E: Definitely. I started in the summer, so there were only summer school students ere, and that was what about the number of students I was used to while at Pitzer. And when classes actually started in the fall and I saw how many students were here, I was incredibly overwhelmed. It’s pretty amazing as an adviser to hear some examples from students of their interactions with their professors or with other students. Even just the idea of being taught by a TA, or going to TA office hours, is hard to imagine. So it’s an incredibly different experience.
K: Do you have a favorite thing about Pitzer?
E: I think one of my favorite things about Pitzer was just how small it was. I had a 2:45 philosophy class and could take a nap until 2:44 and still get there before the professor. The class sizes were great, because you actually felt like the professors knew you. If you missed a class, they would email you and ask you where you were. Basically when I think about Pitzer in general I always get happy, because everything that happened there was great. Even the things that were tough because you’re going through a really interesting time in life, being what, 18-22. Some of the fondest memories I have were just from playing tennis, and the camaraderie I got from being on those teams all four years. Each year was incredibly different; teammates left and knew ones came in. But I think that being on the Pomona-Pitzer tennis courts was always really great. We sometimes would have 6 am breakfast at Frary to make early matches, and the teammates from Pitzer would all meet up right between Mead and Holden (which isn’t there anymore), and we’d walk through the mounds over to Pomona, and it was always silent. And that was always a really nice walk. I miss Holden, to be honest, because Holden was great – it was disgusting – but great. I lived there my sophomore year and then half of my junior year when I got back from study abroad, and it was disgusting but I loved it. I used to study late night all the time in CAPAS (Center for Asian Pacific American Students), and in Edmunds at Pomona with the team. Those were probably the best nights, just staying up all night with my friends…turns out trying to write a philosophy paper at 3 in the morning just kind of comes out as gibberish.
If you like what you see, check out the Alumni Spotlight posts on Tim Campos ’10 and Mitchell Felton ’13!
Posted by Katie Shepherd, Admission Counselor