"Get out of here, Asian," yelled a group of strangers soon after I arrived in the United States from Tokyo, Japan. I was confused and didn't know how to respond but chose to ignore it because I was happy to be in another country. As time went on, I started to understand what they meant. Due to the fact that English is my second language, I felt like an outsider, regardless of where I was. I didn't feel connected to the culture, community or people. Many times I wished to become an American so that I could feel more connected and make more friends. However, my accent was hard to understand and so, for a while, I hated being me.
As difficult as it was, it never changed the fact that I liked the culture and wanted to interact with the people. So I decided to get involved in school activities and happened to work in Student Life for my first school year. At first, it was very overwhelming because I was the only international student and felt a little uncomfortable speaking up. However, my advisrrs -- Kris Baier, Laura Singletary, Monica Koller and Tim Pattison -- and other student leaders always supported and encouraged me. I was very grateful to work with them and contribute to the school and community.
This year, I have been working as a Student Ambassador and have had chances to meet and serve students, donors and many other diverse people. My duties include giving campus tours, talking with prospective students and helping with the Service-Learning Project in Whatcom County. In addition, I went to the Students of Color Conference. The conference was a breathtaking opportunity for me to identify who I am and how I should deal with my status as an international student in the U.S. During the conference, Johnny Hu, who is a math instructor at WCC and one of the advisrrs for the conference, told me, "You should be yourself. Don't compare with others or try to fit in because everyone is different." Those were the most powerful words that I needed to hear at that moment.
I originally intended to study English alone, but I learned a lot more. There are so many ways of getting involved on campus, such as Student Council, the Programming and Diversity Board, and other various clubs. The more I got involved on campus, the more I felt connected.
It is interesting to see the changes in me before and after coming to WCC. Whenever I think back on my youth, I always regret the fact that I didn't work hard to achieve what I wanted. I also grew up being shy and never tried to get over it. I was a soft speaker and always hesitated to lead other people. I was never willing to be a leader. Once I arrived in Bellingham, however, it seems that I was allowed to be myself and express who I am, which is uncommon in Japan.
WCC gave me a lot of opportunities to improve myself, to prepare me for whatever future comes to me, and to have made me proud of who I am. Because of the influence of faculty and staff and other student leaders at WCC, I was motivated to develop myself and become a leader. They have been my inspiration and role models. I can't thank all the faculty, staff and my friends enough for what they have done for me. Without their support, I couldn't have achieved my personal goals.
In the future, I want to work as an international commercial pilot and go all over the world. The reason is because I have felt more and more fascinated by other cultures after coming to the U.S.
WCC has been a great place for me because it helped me understand other cultures and establish who I am. Being a student here was the best decision that I have ever made in my life because there were a lot of significant learning opportunities that I never expected to have.
WINDOW ON MY WORLD
Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.email@example.com.
Koichi Hirata is a Whatcom Community College student from Japan. He will graduate in spring 2013 with an Associate in Arts and Sciences degree. Through WCC's International Program, more than 200 students from 29 countries attend classes on Whatcom's campus.