Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
Our lives deserve to be lived as the wild and precious times they are. As the academic year celebratorily closes, I spoke with three women whose own lives have inspired me in the past nine months. Two will return home – to China and Japan – and another will take her first flight abroad.
Some context. Of the 72 international exchange students who studied at Cal State LA in the 2018-19 year, a handful of them actively participated in our weekly meetings and volunteering on and off campus. Natsumi Nishioka from Japan and Yumeng “Sky” Deng from China were two of these students. And of the over 100 students who studied abroad the same year, Debra Lozano is one. She has received two scholarships and will board a plane to Australia this summer.
While each student takes a different path, they all share the same perspective: positivity. Here are their stories.
“Helping People Makes Me Happy”: Sky Deng
Yumeng and I met in Starbucks, where we both ordered matcha tea lattes. That wasn’t all we have in common. I had been an English major like her and we both wanted to be teachers. She studies English at Cal State LA’s partner university, Central China Normal University.
She brightly told me that other students say, “Wow, I thought you are from here. You don’t have an accent.” Indeed, it feels like Yumeng was always a Golden Eagle. She enrolled in classes like Gymnastics, Spanish, and Intercultural Communication, and attends nearly every campus event. Her Instagram profile shows her hiking, volunteering, and sightseeing in LA. Even Yumeng’s English nickname, “Sky,” suggests a happy-go-lucky character.
She has always been involved. At her home university, she was required to volunteer for 24 hours but completed 300. She kept finding more to do, like writing an English-language newsletter, working at academic conferences, and teaching high school English classes in rural China. At Cal State LA, Sky joined the Leadershape program, which provides leadership development. She serves off campus too, including the LA Regional Food Bank. She and 48 other volunteers packed 2,143 boxes (“which is 500 boxes more than last year”). She wrote about this experience on her Instagram page:
The work is tiring, but imagining how happy those kids will be when they get the food makes every second meaningful and worthwhile. All in all, I like volunteering. It always makes me feel so good . Besides, I have received so much help from this beautiful angelic city and I want to pay it forward~
Sky’s philosophy? “Helping people makes me happy.”
In summary, she has completed 33 volunteer hours with the LA Regional Food Bank and other organizations such as 826 LA, a local group helping K-12 students with their writing. Even her vacations involve volunteering. Recently, on a visit to Seattle to see friends and shadow elementary school teachers, a school principal invited Sky to speak about China to over 100 students.
When I asked her about her impressions of Los Angeles, she told me, “[people who live in LA] are so lucky, because [in central China] we don’t have ocean, we don’t have beach.” She enjoys LA’s murals and the fact that “everything is spicy” (as a Wuhan resident, she likes spice).
In the future, Sky will finish her B.A. degree in China. She adds, “I want to stay here [in the U.S.] but it’s hard and expensive without my scholarship,” a monthly stipend provided by the Chinese government. In addition to receiving financial aid, she also works on campus, helping her afford life in LA.
Sky wants to further her education in English linguistics or literature. Inspired by her experience, she is considering graduate programs abroad, hoping to become a professor.
“You Can Always Choose to be Happy”: Natsumi Nishioka
When I interviewed Natsumi, it felt like she was the center of attention on campus. Students approached her regularly to say hello. Soon I realized they were part of the same group: the Korean Student Association (KSA).
Natsumi is the first Japanese student I’ve met who joined a Korean organization. After attending a KSA beach bonfire last semester, she joined because “I really liked the way they greeted me.” When she first arrived in California, she admitted that she was “scared that not everyone would be open.” But at the bonfire, KSA members welcomed and invited her to events, including a mountain cabin retreat where students held dance-offs, played card games, and made dinner for each other. She cooked curry.
Cultural fusion is integral to Natsumi’s life. Born in Geneva to a diplomat family – her parents named her after a Swiss meadow of yellow flowers – her family moved many times, returning to Japan when she was a toddler before working in Norway then Ireland.
This upbringing was challenging. As a Third Culture Kid, she never fit anywhere. Then she met an American in Norway. Even though they didn’t speak the same language, she shared chocolate and created a new friendship. She’s been drawn to meeting people from other cultures ever since. Natsumi’s philosophy? “You can always choose to be happy.”
In LA, Natsumi says her “to-do list here was not to travel a lot, which may sound weird.” Instead, she wanted to speak English, meet people, and learn more about society. She added that “a lot of people come to LA to see the ocean, but I want to go deeper.” Unsurprisingly, her favorite classes include Intercultural Communication and a U.S. history class on race and ethnicity.
She has one shared hobby with her KSA friends: dancing. She admitted, “I’m really shy about dancing in front of people, but I like it.” Recently she entered an audition for the Koreos dance group, which choreographs K-pop songs, some getting as many as one million views on YouTube. After practicing for a couple of weeks, she went to UCLA, danced for hours, and made it to the final round. Though she wasn’t selected, she tells me, “I have no regrets.”
The practice wasn’t in vain. A couple of weeks later, she performed a K-pop dance with KSA friends at the Cal State LA Lunar New Year celebration.
Friendships are important to Natsumi, and she has many of them. So it was surprising to hear her say, “I didn’t think I’d make too many friends.” She is happy she was wrong.
As her short year ends at Cal State LA, Natsumi will return to her home university, Komazawa University, and will study for one more semester before graduating. When she returns to Japan she will volunteer at the international center, helping students adjust to Japanese culture, just as she adjusted to Cal State LA.
“When You Think Positive, Good Things Happen”: Debra Lozano
For months, Debra and I have met almost weekly in my office to review scholarship applications. Minutes before our interview, I received an email telling me she had received her second scholarship to intern abroad.
It was the best spoiler alert I’ve ever given.
I wrote about Debra because she was a soft-spoken student who I began to know with time. During our visits, she shared her essay drafts, but also her love of dance, YouTube makeup tutorials, and the beach. While Angelenos like Debra may live within a one-hour drive of the Pacific Ocean, visits require planning. In contrast, the Australian city she will intern in – Perth – offers ubiquitous beaches.
Not everything in Debra’s life is idyllic. She faces challenges: two immediate family members live with serious medical challenges. While one sibling has a disability, another family member has a life-threatening disease. On any day, her family could wake up without one of their members. Regardless, she tells me, “You have to be strong throughout all this.” And she is one of the strongest people I know.
Encouraged by her family, Debra was the first to go to college, deciding to study Exercise Science, learning how to become a physical therapist.
There was one problem: she couldn’t find many study abroad programs in Exercise Science. When she attended our study abroad fair, she visited each table, eventually finding a TEAN internship in Australia. She said, “It still feels like a dream.”
When she began to write her applications, Debra and I met to discuss how she would craft her life story on paper. Interestingly, the writing “did kind of feel like a little bit of therapy,” she confided, “I was able to share my story and I was able to be comfortable telling that part. So it’s been a little easier to cope with [challenges].”
Support is one reason for Debra’s strength. It was my honor to meet her father and two of her sisters, some of her many cheerleaders. When she first told her parents, they endorsed the internship. Of that moment, she said, “This was a relief knowing I had their full confidence in my travel.” Her advice to other students, in fact, is to “surround yourself with really good friends and family and advisors who support you.”
Yet Debra is also increasingly independent, and asserts, “You have to help yourself before you can help others. Nobody else can do it for yourself.” She admitted that studying abroad is like “building a new part of myself.”
Her philosophy – positivity – is reflected in comments like, “When you think positive things, good things can happen.” Her Fund for Education Abroad scholarship, awarded to only 5% of applicants, indicated others also saw value in her.
I couldn’t think of a better person to send to one of the happiest countries in the world, and I am certain that Australia will transform her. Much like for Natsumi and Sky, her life will never be the same again.
Sky Deng, Natsumi Nishioka, and Debra Lozano all agreed to be featured on this blog.