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Assistant Professor Jon M. Aoki


First-Generation Students

To Succeed, Accept Life's Challenges

Jon M. Aoki, Assistant Professor
College of Sciences & Technology

Gaman, Ganbatte

        I am a fourth generation American and a first generation student . My ancestors arrived from Japan and went to Hawaii, Washington, and California. They were farmers by trade, although a few worked on the famous transcontinental railroad. 

        Central California in general, and the San Joaquin Valley in particular, are often called the Breadbasket of the world . The valley itself is not aesthetically beautiful, but its produce is exported across the nation and around the world . If you have never performed manual labor, or at least been on a farm, let me assure you it is a difficult way to make a living. I vividly recall digging trenches  and constructing trellises, among other mundane tasks. As a kid (age 10 or so), I think the best “job” at home was probably driving a tractor.

        Life can be full of hardships and everyone takes a different road on their trek through life. During WWII my parents, then youngsters, were relocated to internment camps in Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas. They told me how the government said they could take anything that could be carried. Everything else had to be sold or entrusted to a friend. Imagine that. It was a “fire sale,” and if you gave your personal belongings  or property  to a “friend,” there was no guarantee you would get it back. Adding insult to the injury, my parent’s first night away from home was spent in the horse stables at a fairground. Upon arrival at the internment camp, they were greeted with armed guards whose guns were pointed toward the camp . Three years of their lives were spent in these camps, yet somehow my parents overcame this bleak beginning, as well as other obstacles, and ultimately reached middle class status.

        Life wasn’t easy for my parents. Neither one had an opportunity to attend a university. Instead, my father was given the onus of taking care of the Aoki family farm, which eventually gave way to a “mom and pop” store in an agricultural landscape. Farming and owning a business requires working dawn-to-dusk, seven days a week. I can’t explain why, but I don’t recall my parents ever explicitly stating the importance of an education to my siblings or me, but we knew we were  expected to do well in school and then go to college. I know that Mom and Dad wanted a better life for their children and that education was the ticket to that life. Thus, my early childhood was shaped by farming and working in a store, which developed character and motivated me to further my education to distance myself from this type of work.

        The mom and pop store and our house burned down when a neighbor across the street decided to check the gas line with a match. The resulting explosion and fire destroyed all of my parent’s belongings . Can you envision having five children and losing everything? No house, no store, no keepsakes. In addition, my parents did not have insurance, so they had to rebuild their life from scratch. The rebuilding required non-stop work for over 20 years . Through it all, my parents were able to improve their lives and more importantly the lives of their children. The Japanese have a couple of words for overcoming challenges – gaman and ganbatte – which mean tenacity or perseverance. The hard work and sacrifice of parents were the epitomy of tenacity and perseverance, which enabled my siblings and I to go above and beyond what my parents accomplished. My parents and grandparents were blue collar workers, and now my four siblings and I have used education to have white collar status professions – medicine and higher education.

Life is More about the Journey and Less about the Destination

        I worked to put myself through higher college. My childhood experiences on the farm, coupled with working at service-related jobs like grocery stores and a sporting goods store, were enough to convince me that education was the best way to improve my life. Working for $3.25/hr with 5 to 25 cent raises were strong incentives to do well in school. While working, I earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in biology, as well as a teaching certificate. Along the way, I married and I am very grateful to have a spouse who is supportive of what I do. We moved to Texas when my son was 3 weeks old so I could work on my doctorate in biology. Within a year of arriving in Texas, my dissertation chair took another position at an out-of-state university, which happened as my wife was laid off from work. I, too, would be without income because my research assistant position would be dissolved when my chair left. Do I uproot the family and follow my chair to another state after moving half way across the country? Here I am with a year old baby, a house, and no income. I thought about my parent’s dilemmas and tried to not only relate their experience to my situation, but also to draw inspiration from their predicaments. What to do? Gaman, ganbatte. Stay focused, persevere, and believe. We decided to stay in Houston and work on improving our situation. Months went by, but our situation improved. Jobs materialized, the house was kept, and, in time, we were blessed with a second baby . In addition, I was able to complete my doctorate in science education and then found myself at UHD. What a journey. Life is full of ups and downs, but you have to be unrelenting to reach your goals. How you respond to adversity goes a long way in determining what you become. The journey through life is unpredictable, but you can increase your chance of success by persevering through the hardships.


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Last updated or reviewed on 9/30/14

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