Training for life at Mushin Self Defense

Story and photos by ALEXIS PERNO

On a Sunday at 2 p.m. in downtown Salt Lake City, I was held at knifepoint in a Walgreens. 

A week later, I was learning how to escape the very move I had been assaulted with.

I walked into Mushin Self Defense nervous. Martial arts wasn’t something I had experience with, unless watching my little brother earn his taekwondo black belt counts. But still, co-founder and instructor Brian Yamasaki had encouraged me to come, promising in an introductory phone call that I would control the boundaries of our interaction. 

That call was my first inkling that the culture of Mushin Self Defense was unlike anything else I had experienced. And as I continued to learn about the school’s story, that continued to be proved correct.

That first night, I put on a facade of cheeriness in the car ride to North Salt Lake. 

“As long as it’s not chokeholds, I’ll be fine,” I said to the friend who accompanied me. 

We walk in. It’s chokeholds. 

It only took a moment of knowing eye contact with my friend before I burst into tears. I almost asked to leave, sure that coming was a mistake despite Yamasaki’s encouragement. I wasn’t ready. 

But the instructors quickly assured me that nothing was expected of me. My training partner for the night, Ruby Talataina, hugged me tight, saying it was enough just to walk through those doors. She had been there too, she said. 

Talataina and my friend began to spar. I watched, and wanted in.  

It was at that moment, with someone else’s arm around my neck and tears down my face, I knew I had made the right choice in coming to Mushin. 

“I just keep thinking, I wish I had found Mushin 20 years ago,” Talataina said in a phone interview. “From my perspective, for a trauma survivor, you go in there and you work through a trigger in one hour that a lot of people spend years working through.”

Talataina’s journey to Mushin Self Defense unfortunately is similar to mine — she had started working through her healing process and thought a self-defense class would help. Her first class ended in tears too, and she told Yamasaki she wouldn’t be returning. 

“He was so respectful and he said, ‘Yes, we are here any time,’” Talataina said. “Then the very next day, I went to bed and I was like, ‘Man, you’re just going to let this fear conquer you for the rest of your life, or are you gonna do something about it?’”

Talataina went back to the next class.

“Honestly, what made the difference were the coaches, Sir Kiser and Sir Yamasaki,” Talataina said. 

Brandon Kiser is Yamasaki’s business partner and the instructor of the Monday night women-only self-defense class I attend. Together, the two have been running Mushin Self Defense since 2000. But the culture that exists today wasn’t always the one Mushin cultivated. 

Brian Yamasaki, left, and Brandon Kiser are coaches and co-founders of Mushin Self Defense. The gym was known for fighting before the owners pivoted to teach students from all walks of life. Photo courtesy of Mushin Self Defense.

Stepping onto the mat

Flash back to the ’80s: Kiser and Yamasaki are both enthralled by the likes of “The Karate Kid” and Bruce Lee. But as Kiser says, “The flashy kicks was just the hook.”

That hook was literal: Kiser’s journey started with a friendly rival showing off a fancy taekwondo kick. The resulting bout of jealousy inspired him to start taking classes. But looking beyond the movie-star moves, there was a different draw, rooted in a chaotic childhood. 

“At the time, I didn’t make that connection, but now in hindsight as a 42-year-old, I’m like ‘Oh, well I was probably just really insecure and thought that [martial arts] was going to fix some part of me that I was missing,” Kiser said in a phone interview. “And it did.” 

Once he found martial arts, Kiser never looked back. 

“The martial arts just really grounded me and gave me direction in life,” he said. 

I understand the appeal. The first time I slammed someone into the mat, I immediately asked if they were all right. It was easier than I thought — a lot easier, in fact. 

I walked away feeling powerful, like something had finally slotted into place. 

For Yamasaki, there were several draws to martial arts — bullying, for one. Growing up in Davis County, Utah, Yamasaki said he could probably count the number of Asians, not just Japanese Americans, on one hand. 

“I just think, maybe, deep down inside, it felt good to have an Asian hero,” Yamasaki said about Bruce Lee in a phone interview.

The appeal he’s most certain of, though, came from an existing connection: Yamasaki’s father and grandfather both hold black belts in judo.

“That probably was one of the other big driving factors in my interest in the martial arts,” he said. “Trying to understand these people that I love from doing what they did and going on the journeys that they went on.”

Brandon Kiser poses as an attacker while assistant coach and professional referee Dave Seljestad looks on during the Monday night women-only self-defense class. The class utilizes defense moves that rely on limb placement and technique rather than strength.

The reckoning: “We were white belts on the business side of things.” 

In the ’90s, mixed martial arts was practically unheard of. Separate schools taught separate sports, and loyalty to the sport one originally learned was emphasized and expected. Utah, meanwhile, was establishing a name for itself in the jiujitsu world. 

Kiser, who was training in taekwondo, was rebuked harshly by his then coach for expressing an interest in jiujitsu. When he found William Bernales of the Bernales Institute of Martial Arts, Kiser knew he had found the change he was looking for. 

“It wasn’t a hard transition,” Kiser said. “Once I had heard about him and validated the things that I had heard, I was all in.”

Kiser began taking private lessons in 1998, paying for them with almost his entire paycheck from Walmart. Brian Yamasaki walked into the gym the following year. Right off the bat, he could tell what he needed to know about Kiser.

“He was there, finishing up his private [lesson],” Yamasaki said. “I was able to watch a move and I could tell that he was really serious about training.” 

Yamasaki made it clear from the first day that he wanted to compete. But at a time with very little opportunities to do so, that ambition wasn’t taken well by existing members of the gym. 

“I just remember wanting to run him out of the gym, and him not letting that happen,” Kiser said.

Yamasaki’s perseverance proved his dedication to Kiser, and the two struck up a friendship. 

“There was just something about him that I connected to very quickly,” Kiser said. “It’s hard for me to see back through the eyes I had at that time, because now I could go on for hours about all the great things about Brian Yamasaki.” 

As training partners, it became clear they both shared similar visions about martial arts, from the discipline of the journey to the world of MMA. 

“Brandon and I were fighting, but we never saw ourselves as fighters,” Yamasaki said. “I think both of us would agree we’re both more interested in the art aspect [and] self-expression.” 

Yamasaki approached Kiser in 2000 with a business proposal that would center these core beliefs. One handshake later, Mushin Self Defense was born.

“We didn’t even have an agreement between each other more than our word, and I don’t think that works in most cases,” Kiser said. “You would have to find a Brian Yamasaki, and they don’t make a lot of those.”

It was no small amount of effort to ensure success. At one point, the pair put their houses on the line to keep the school afloat. 

“We were not really business savvy,” Yamasaki said. “We were white belts on the business side of things.” 

Their inexperience reflected in the clientele Mushin developed up until 2010. 

“Our gym was a very rough environment to get exposed to martial arts,” Kiser said. “We were just trying to run everybody out of there, and whoever was left was … who we wanted to train.”

With Kiser and Yamasaki’s growing reputations as instructors, the gym became a hotspot for those looking to fight — and to win. But many weren’t willing to put in the effort to succeed.

Nor were they willing to pay.

“Fighters don’t pay and they run out all the people who do pay the bills,” Kiser said. “So at the end of the day, you’re just left with a very broken business model.”

The business model wasn’t the only thing that was broken. Although the school was producing successful, winning fighters, Yamasaki knew something had to change when a fellow school owner called Mushin’s culture a disgrace.

“It was very hard to pivot and change directions,” Yamasaki said. “It was painful. Personally, it was hard to let go of a lot of what we had built.” 

At first, Kiser was resistant, finding himself sucked into the fighting world and its vices. But slowly, he came around. 

“I was determined — and I know Yamasaki was too — to make our business work,” he said. “I give Yamasaki all the credit for really changing course in the gym.”

While he’s proud of what’s been created, Kiser admits that Mushin’s old training methods probably gave people a bad impression of martial arts. But without the path Mushin took, Kiser doesn’t think the school would be where it is now. 

Yamasaki added,​ “We needed to find our people, the people that understand us and understand what we’re doing. And even now, we’re still really refining that process.” 

Students of the women-only self-defense class watch as coach Brandon Kiser demonstrates how to escape from a pinned position. The focus of the class is to teach women how to defend themselves against untrained attackers.

Training for life

The scariest part of my Walgreens experience wasn’t the knife in my face. It was the realization that I had no idea what to do. At Mushin Self Defense, mental preparation and empowerment are just as important as physical training.

“For a number of years you’re a puppy, and if things went bad, you just had to roll over and show your belly,” Yamasaki said. “Well, you’re not that anymore.” 

As he says, a lion never has to tell someone it’s a lion. And like a lion, boundaries are encouraged to be set, as gym member Ruby Talataina knows. The coping skills she had previously used to survive were discouraged within the gym. 

“I remember Yamasaki said to our class on the first day, ‘Do not suffer in silence,’” she said.

Now, over nine months since her first class, Talataina feels safe enough to roll with men twice her size, working through her trauma. 

“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just had a 210-pound man over me who was trying to choke me, and guess what?’” she said. “I effing survived.”

After Monday night’s women-only self-defense class, student India Bown unties her white belt. Bown has been involved with the class since January.

Mushin Self Defense has also survived. It started with action movies and shared heroes, then a handshake and shared values. Now, 22 years later, the journey continues.

“When I made the shift to, ‘I wanna figure out how to teach jiujitsu in a way that people love it and stay with it,’ then that became my new passion,” Kiser said. “That’s still where I’m at now, years later.”

Yamasaki views the martial arts journey as a dynamic, ever-evolving thing. Over time, his journey became more introspective, grappling with how he may have contributed to negativity in the universe. 

“How have I been a bully?” Yamasaki said. “How have I not lived up to my expectations?”

He advises new students to follow where their own journey takes them. 

“Let it have time to take root and germinate and grow and evolve because the story, it just gets deeper and more interesting and more fulfilling as time goes on,” Yamasaki said.  

Kiser can’t even imagine what his life would be like without the influence of martial arts.

“All the good, all the bad, the whole journey for me is what’s kept my life on track,” he said. “I want to share that with as many people as possible.”

The future of the gym isn’t grandiose. For Kiser, it’s continuing exactly what Mushin has been doing: teaching quality classes to anybody who wants to learn. 

And for me, I learned more than just a jiujitsu move. Walking in that first night, I never expected what a bright blue mat and a chokehold would teach me in only one class. 

As they say in this world, it’s not the years, but the hours. 

“There are so many life lessons in there that I have learned from those classes, and that is why I go four days a week,” Talataina said. “That is what Mushin is for me — I am training for life.” 

Students in the women-only self-defense class are encouraged to “roll” with each other in friendly sparring matches. During this time, students have the opportunity to practice against jiujitsu moves instead of preparing for untrained attackers.

Rose Shimberg

MY STORIES:

MY BLOG:

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be a member of Voices of Utah this semester! This class has been an incredible experience and has helped me to learn more about the important issues facing Asian Americans in Salt Lake City. It has allowed me to connect with both people and place and equipped me to do more work like this in the future.

I had some hesitancy when it came to reporting on communities that I do not belong to because I wanted to make sure that I did them justice and represented them accurately. I went into the project mindful of my privilege and intending to be a listener, remain open-minded, and give my sources a space to speak freely. I am grateful to everyone who was willing to talk to me and trust me to write these stories.

This semester was tumultuous for both my reporting and my personal life. I broke my arm shortly before the first story was due and my initial recovery set me a couple of weeks behind schedule. On top of that setback, I had difficulty locating a third source for my first story and hearing back from anyone for my initial idea for story two. Last semester, when I first put together a three-source enterprise story, I heard back from everyone quickly and didn’t encounter any difficulties. But because I had to pivot so many times and think outside the box, I learned a lot more this time around about the need to be flexible and adaptable as a journalist.

My first story ended up being pretty difficult to write and I was disappointed that I had so much trouble finding a third source to speak to. But the sources I did find were excited and passionate, which encouraged me to stick with the idea despite my difficulties. I consulted a wide range of scholarly materials to back their personal experiences with relevant data, which allowed me to make up for the lack of a third interviewee.

My biggest success, in my opinion, was my second story. After my initial idea fell through, I came up with an idea, sourced and conducted all three interviews, and wrote the story in just one week. I cared a lot about my new topic, the Japanese Peace Garden and the recent vandalism that occurred there, and I thought it was a story that needed to be told. It was encouraging to see that even with a busy schedule, I was capable of turning around a story so quickly and creating something I was proud of.

I was aware of some of the issues facing the Asian American community and the rise of anti-Asian attacks in recent years, but speaking about these issues with my sources gave me new insight and perspective. Although it wasn’t directly relevant to my story, one of my sources told me a lot about the history of internment and division within the Japanese-American community, which inspired me to do more research into a topic that I hardly knew anything about.

I also realized that I don’t know nearly as much as I would like to about local politics here in Salt Lake City. Speaking with councilmember Darin Mano was my first real experience talking to a member of local government and hearing about the issues we face on that scale. Through my research, hearing about other classmates’ stories, and speaking with my sources, I have become much more familiar with the local actors here in Salt Lake City. This project has encouraged me to stay more up-to-date on local news and policy as well as big, national issues. 

Everything that’s happening on the national or global level ripples into local politics and local stories. So in addition to raising my cultural and political awareness, this class has also given me a good insight into what life working for a local newsroom would be like. I found it gratifying to tell personal, intimate stories that connect to broader issues, which I think is what local journalism is all about.

ABOUT ME:

My name is Rose Shimberg and my path to Voices of Utah has been a bit unconventional. I grew up in rural New Hampshire and then attended the University of Vermont, where I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Geography and a minor in Community and International Development.

Geography gave me an understanding of the intersectional nature of the issues facing the world today and a drive to do something about them. But as graduation approached, I came to the realization that I couldn’t envision myself going into that field in the future. Although I cared about the topics I studied, I realized that my true passion, which I’d nurtured since childhood, was writing.

Graduating into a world that had been upended by the pandemic allowed me the time to reflect on this revelation and ultimately decide to do something about it. Since starting journalism courses at the U this fall, I’ve become more certain than ever that I’m on the right path. Although I’m working full-time and am only a non-matriculated student, I hope that the experience and samples I gain through my coursework will help me to follow my passion, go to graduate school for journalism and one day land a career in the field. Recently, I accepted a communications internship at the International Rescue Committee, which I believe will be the perfect synthesis of my undergraduate degree and my recent studies in journalism.

After vandalism at Japanese Peace Garden, community organizers build bridges and solidarity against anti-Asian attacks

Story and photos by ROSE SHIMBERG

A bright red Tori gate marks the entrance to the Japanese Peace Garden, a pop of color in the cool spring morning.

Stone lanterns and evergreen trees dot the hilly landscape but the garden’s true beauty is yet to bloom — the pale pink blossoms of a sea of cherry trees.

the entrance to the International Peace Gardens at 1160 Dalton Ave. S. in Jordan Park.

A pair of bridges bookend the tranquil space and although the pond they traverse is dry, visitors still stop for a contemplative moment before reaching the other side.

The garden is just one of many in Jordan Park’s International Peace Gardens, where over two dozen countries are represented. But it alone fell victim to an act of hateful vandalism in October 2021.

It was just one incident in a series of anti-Asian attacks and threats in Salt Lake City, which have been on the rise since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

After speaking up about the issue and spreading awareness, community members quickly mobilized to clean up the garden, showcasing the strength and solidarity of a connected Asian American community.

The Tori gate marking the entrance to the Japanese Garden.

Trey Imamura was the first person to see the hateful message. Imamura was there on behalf of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which brings volunteers together twice a year to clean up the garden. As co-president of the Salt Lake Chapter, he went to see what supplies would be needed for the cleanup.

Imamura said he was shocked and upset at what he found. But he wasn’t sure if he should report the crime.

“From what I’ve gathered, there’s a very Asian American mentality where it’s like, keep your head down, keep grinding away, don’t make a fuss,” he said. “But I had some friends who were like, ‘absolutely not! Cause some noise and make a ruckus.’”

One of those friends was Amanda Lau, a director of the Asian Link Project. She said she found out about the vandalism through Imamura’s Instagram story.

“Immediately when I saw that, the first thing I did was I told Carrie about it. And that’s when she got to work,” she said in a Zoom interview.

She was referring to Carrie Shin, cofounder of the Asian Link Project. Shin started the nonprofit organization with her husband in response to the rise in anti-Asian attacks nationwide. They had heard about a group in Oakland, California, that ran a chaperone program for elders who were fearful to go out alone. Shin wanted to provide that same support for the people of Salt Lake City.

“That’s how it started, with the chaperone project,” she said in a Zoom interview. “And we started gaining a little bit more trust with other people that were telling us of vandalism and coming forward with their stories.”

Naturally, the directors of the Asian Link Project immediately offered their help when they heard about the garden.

A view of stone lanterns from one of two footbridges in the garden.

Shin helped put Imamura in touch with Jason Nguyen, a local reporter at ABC4. Imamura also contacted Utah Sen. Jani Iwamoto, whose connections with the sheriff’s and police departments helped initiate a rapid cleanup.

Asian Link Project director Lau, who also works at the Salt Lake City Council office, said it meant a lot to see councilmembers Darin Mano and Dennis Faris speak about Asian American hate and vandalism happening locally.

“It was really moving for me to see that action took place quickly, loudly and proudly,” she said.

Thanks to the community’s swift response, the graffiti was gone within 48 hours, with the JACL cleanup taking place that same week. Asian Link Project volunteers made sure to join in on the effort.

“We had so many hands on deck and so many eager people to help, which we appreciate,” Shin said. “Sometimes these things take a little bit longer.”

She spoke from experience dealing with multiple instances of anti-Asian vandalism. When the window of Pho 28, a Vietnamese restaurant, was defaced in 2020, it took a lot longer to repair the destruction.

“They had to go with vandalism and damage on their window for about a year and a half until we were able to get that fixed,” Shin said.

These repeated attacks have shown that the vandalism in the garden was not an isolated incident. And the perpetrator still remains a mystery.

“This stuff just happens here, too,” Lau said. “And it goes underreported all the time.”

The Asian Link Project has big things in store for 2022, particularly the Asian Festival in July, where it will collaborate with local businesses and volunteers.

“With the surge of attacks, any exposure to racism, anything of that nature, we will always be available and we have our response plan,” Shin said. “But we are focusing on a lot of cultural events as well. We want to bring people together. We want to introduce people to Asian culture. We just want to make it normal.”

The Asian Link Project was not the only group that assisted Imamura and the JACL. The Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) offered its support as well. It had previously partnered with the JACL to coordinate events such as vaccine clinics for senior community members.

The Salt Lake City chapter of the JACL also stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Imamura himself moderated a 2020 event cohosted by BLM Utah founder Lex Scott and Japanese-American civil rights advocate Floyd Mori. The event aimed to educate young people about BLM.

“At the end of the day, we have to work together,” Imamura said. “No matter if you’re JACL, OCA, Black Lives Matter, we’re all here to create a just and equal society.”

He was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of support he received after word spread about the garden. People he never expected to reach out checked in on him and made sure he was OK. For Imamura, this exposure is critical in preventing these things from happening in the future.

“I had the ability to report and say ‘OK, this happened in my community and I’m upset by it.’ If someone says, ‘Wow, I’m upset that you’re upset, that hurts me because you’re hurt,’ I think my job is done,” he said.

He uses the Japanese word kakehashi to inform and guide his work as a community leader.

A bridge traverses the pond, which once held water lilies and koi fish.

It directly translates to bridge but can be used to mean “building bridges.” This is exactly what Imamura hopes to do by spreading awareness of issues affecting not only the Japanese citizens of Salt Lake City but the Asian American community as a whole.

Without its bridges, the Japanese Peace Garden would be impassable. And if it weren’t for the community’s consistent care, the wooden structures would have rotted into the earth long ago.

“Instead of drawing lines in the sand,” Imamura said, “let’s build bridges, you know?”

Amid diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at the University of Utah’s College of Nursing, Jenneth Doria is hopeful for the nurses of tomorrow

Story by ROSE SHIMBERG

Jenneth Doria has never forgotten the gifts that her father brought home when she was a girl living in Tondo, an impoverished coastal district in Manila, Philippines.

They weren’t candies or toys or fancy appliances. They couldn’t be quickly devoured, broken from play or rendered useless by rust. They were encyclopedias — heavy, leather-bound volumes that as a set encompassed everything there was to know about the world. They were knowledge itself.

“Ever since we were young,” Doria said in a Zoom interview, “we were ingrained with the power of education.”

Education was what allowed Doria to leave the Phillippines after college for a career as a Registered Nurse in the United States. She was speaking from LAX, on her way back to the Philippines with IHHELPP, an organization she founded to build disaster-resilient infrastructure in her native country. She said her heart has always been in giving back to the people there.

Doria (left) and colleagues outside of Dueg Resettlement Elementary School. The organization built a disaster-resilient classroom for students.

At the age of 53, after raising seven children, she returned to school at the University of Utah to earn her master’s degree in nursing education. She then earned her DNP to share her knowledge with the next generation. And since 2015, she has been a professor in the College of Nursing.

Filipinos have long been a major nursing workforce in the United States. Doria, who initially wanted to study business, was encouraged to pursue nursing by her mother, who knew it meant an opportunity to escape from poverty. The career has allowed her to follow her passion — helping others.

“Culturally, it aligns with our values,” she said. “We take care of our elderly, we take care of our family, it’s kind of ingrained with us. So it comes naturally for a Filipino to become a nurse.”

And despite an unprecedented strain on nurses and a rise in anti-Asian attacks, Doria is hopeful about the future of nursing in this country. She’s not alone: starting in 2020 the College of Nursing has ramped up its efforts to strive for equity among students and faculty alike.

Nurses have been in the spotlight since the coronavirus pandemic began, showcasing the extreme sacrifices they were making on the frontlines. Troubling statistics emerged about Filipino nurses: recent reports found that Filipino Americans represent just 4% of American nurses but accounted for 25% of nurse deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Jenneth Doria hands out hygiene and school supplies on a trip to the Philippines with IHHELP.

Although there’s no way to be certain of the cause, the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 deaths among Filipino healthcare workers has been attributed to several different factors. TIME reported that foreign-educated nurses are frequently sent to hospitals that have trouble retaining American-born nurses. These are places that are understaffed, underfunded and have limited access to personal protective equipment.

Filipino nurses often work in bedside and critical care units. Dedicated to providing the best possible care for their patients, they’re likely to work long hours and go above and beyond, increasing their risk of exposure to illness.

The pandemic has also led to a dramatic increase in anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide. A 2022 report found that mental health concerns among Asian American frontline workers during the pandemic “were compounded by concurrent anti-Asian racism and violence.”

But despite burnout, a continued rise in anti-Asian hate and a nationwide nursing shortage, Doria is, overwhelmingly, optimistic about the next generation.

“This is what I tell my students,” she said. “There’s been so much burnout now. Because we’ve been really severely impacted by this pandemic. But I tell them, you’ve gotta look beyond the hospital walls. Even if it’s not nursing per se, reach out to other things so that you’re really addressing your well-being. What makes you happy? What gives you joy?”

Doria’s optimism mirrors the outlook of the College of Nursing, which is taking action to address these issues both in the classroom and the workplace. The college is exploring big questions with complex answers. How can it attract more diverse groups of people to nursing? And how can it retain the students and faculty that it already has?

“It feels to me like a constant search,” said Valerie Flattes in a Zoom interview. She was named the associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion when the position was created in July 2021.

Flattes is in charge of implementing action strategies to recruit and retain a more diverse faculty and student body. She emphasized that many of the issues are systemic and come down to undoing years of bias in the healthcare system. But she, too, is hopeful about the college’s efforts.

“I always approach it from the positive,” Flattes said. “We’re trying to change what we teach our students, how we interact with our students.”

The college is undergoing a full curriculum review to remove bias and discrimination in all forms from its course materials. It now intends to include anti-racist content in every course, with anti-racism training provided for students and faculty alike.

Flattes has been a faculty member since 2001. And although change has been slow, she has seen a profound difference since she started teaching.

“At one point there was me, and there was another Black faculty, and another Asian faculty,” she said. But the numbers keep growing. There are now Asian faculty in every department and the college plans to hire more.

Despite the efforts of the U and other institutions, faculty from minority groups with advanced nursing degrees account for just 16% of full-time appointments. With minority groups making up around a third of Americans, the disparity is clear.

The state’s overwhelming whiteness deters some professorial candidates from coming to Utah, Flattes said. But she’s noticed that many people realize it’s not as bad as they expected.

Doria said she loves working at the University of Utah.

“I invested in a college of nursing because I truly feel that I am valued,” she said. “I am so grateful to work with talented, competent and wonderful colleagues.”

Essential in the mission to recruit more diverse faculty is the need to remove the barriers discouraging diverse students from attending nursing school. A 2007 paper listed some of these: cost, admission criteria heavily hinged on GPA and standardized test scores, internalized bias and lack of representation on admissions committees.

There is a cyclical nature to this quest. Higher enrollment of diverse students in nursing and higher education programs results in increased diversity among nursing faculty. And the more diverse faculty present, the more attractive a college will be for students of color. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing stated that a lack of nursing educators from minority groups could warn potential students of barriers to advancement into faculty positions. A more diverse faculty could have the opposite effect, one of encouragement.

“I appreciate our mission to support a diverse student population,” Doria said. Alongside Flattes, she is a member of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Outreach committee acting to identify and address racial bias in the college’s curriculum, recruitment and hiring processes. For Doria, this pursuit will further the ultimate goal of the profession — helping others.

A nursing workforce that is not only more diverse but also more educated about healthcare’s persistent inequities will provide all patients with a higher standard of care. Even if they don’t pursue formal educator roles, nurses can still teach and inspire the people around them. 

“Our students interact with people in the community, and they can be the best ambassadors for us in encouraging people to apply to nursing,” Flattes said. She recalled doing exactly that when she worked as a nurse and met patients who wished that they’d gone into the field.

Although progress feels slow-moving, Flattes, Doria and their colleagues are hard at work. Anti-racist curriculum, bias training, recruitment strategizing and research are all on the agenda. Flattes believes that the most important thing she can do is keep talking to people and educating them on the importance of these issues.

“There is a long way to go,” she said. “But we’re getting closer every day.”

Everybody Tattoo Studio: A safe space for ‘everybody’ in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by ASIA BOWN

There’s a steady buzz in the studio from tattoo guns. Overlapping this white noise are conversations between artists and their patrons, discussing favorite restaurants, clothes and swapping personal stories. It’s noon and the walls are bathed in sunlight streaming in through the large east-facing windows. The small studio is decorated in pastel decor, a pearlescent couch, white room divider and clippings of each artist’s designs above their stations. The ever-so-slightly slanted floors point to a large mirror at the back of the studio, where customers and artists alike check out their new tattoos.

Above the noise and general chatter, the artists can be heard routinely checking in with their guests. They ask how their clients are feeling, if they need a break, if they’re comfortable, and provide numerous opportunities for customers to voice their concerns or desires. 

Located at 401 N. 300 West in Salt Lake City’s Marmalade District, Everybody Tattoo is a beacon for people of all backgrounds. Ensuring comfort is of paramount importance to the artists who work there and is a core part of the shop’s culture.

Before Victoria Minji Lee took over as shop owner, Everybody Tattoo was owned and run by Gheybin Comish, a local tattoo artist. Comish established the shop as a hub for self-taught and community-taught artists who chose an alternate route into the tattoo industry. 

Generally, becoming a tattoo artist requires a lot of training, research and an apprenticeship. This process is championed by artists who have gone through it, though it can be degrading, exhausting and financially draining work. Because of this, many artists have decided to carve out their own paths consisting of extensive sanitation and safety coursework followed by practice on themselves and friends.  

Comish welcomed artists on non-traditional paths and curated a similarly non-traditional environment in the shop that focused heavily on artist individuality and respect between artists and clients.

Currently six artists work permanently in Lee’s studio, including herself. Each artist’s work is unique and diverges from the traditional American tattoo style in some way. Lee specializes in animal- and plant-themed tattoos. Resident artist Mikki Reeve’s work is whimsical and heavily features skeletons, cherubs and animals. 

Long-time residents Hallie Rose Taylor and Logan Law’s designs tend to be bold. Law’s work is psychedelic, with thick line work and patterns. Taylor’s work is more abstract, consisting of natural elements and fantastical imagery.

Sam Walker, the studio’s newest resident, creates designs based on nature, cartoons and abstract images. Walker’s work is more colorful, and utilizes complex line work and designs are often scaled to larger sizes.

Hiri Sung specializes in hand poke tattoos that range from cartoon characters to fairies to abstract linework. In the hand poke tattoo method, the artist uses a needle with a handle to create designs using dots, much like pointillism art. Machine tattooing involves a small handheld machine with needles on the end used to create lines using small strokes. 

Artist Hiri Sung is free-handing this client’s extensive branch handpoke tattoo.

Most of the artists in the studio take custom tattoo requests and flash requests. An artist’s flash designs are their own artwork that they usually tattoo as-is, though sometimes they will make small modifications for a client. 

The Client Experience

When Lee took over in 2020, she continued to build the best environment for the shop’s artists and clients. To her, everybody in the shop should feel welcome and safe, and as such the shop consists of female and non-binary artists of different ethnicities. 

Getting a tattoo is, after all, an intimate experience and necessitates trust between the artist and client. Everybody Tattoo artists make it a point to provide opportunities for their clients to express their desires and collaborate in the process. They want to see their art on someone who is just as obsessed with it as they are.

In between appointments, resident artist Hiri Sung enjoyed a drink at Blue Copper Coffee 2000 next door and elaborated on the Everybody Tattoo experience from a client’s perspective. 

“You’re never going to come in and feel like we aren’t listening to you. That’s a huge thing that I feel like is different about the shop. We’ll actually listen to you, we’re not going to rush you to pick a placement, we’re not going to intimidate you,” Sung said.

Kenzie Smith, one of the shop’s loyal clients, echoed Sung’s sentiments. She described appointments at Everybody Tattoo as full-on experiences.

At other tattoo shops, she said, she felt like artists just saw her as a business transaction. It was obvious to her that artists at Everybody Tattoo considered their work to be art that their clients play an important role in creating.

From the beginning of every appointment customers have the freedom of choice. They’re able to choose a size from a series of printed templates and try different placements until they find the one they like best.

Victoria Minji Lee’s client has chosen a size and placement for her tattoo using this stencil that Lee provided and applied.

Not only will the artist have a few templates available to start, but they will also have others ready to print so that the client doesn’t feel like they’re wasting time by asking the artist to print more. Smith said this was an uncomfortable part of past appointments she had at other shops.

She also noted that tattoo artists usually want to go bigger in size because it means they’ll make more money.

During one appointment at the studio, Lee had printed three stencils of a goose for Smith to choose from. The last was so large Smith recalled thinking it looked comedic, which was not the way she’d envisioned this tattoo. Lee agreed and said the smallest size would suit Smith’s arm best.

The experience at Everybody Tattoo includes friendly conversation should clients want it. In addition, the artists are completely open to a more meditative appointment with interaction limited to check-ins.

At Everybody Tattoo, Smith said, you feel like you’re hanging out with a friend and all of a sudden you have a new tattoo.

One of the biggest differences in her experiences at Everybody Tattoo compared to other shops was the level of communication the artists provide. She has been tattooed by two different artists at the studio, Lee and Logan Law. 

Never once in four appointments did Smith feel like she couldn’t say what was on her mind, nor did she feel like there was the superiority complex that she so often felt at other shops.

Working at Everybody 

Lee said this level of respect and communication is a vital aspect of Everybody Tattoo’s culture behind the scenes as well. 

“It’s equally as important for our artists to feel welcome and safe [as our clients],” Lee said in a Zoom interview. 

The artists are constantly having to navigate the balance between making their customers comfortable and making sure they feel safe with their clients. They need to be able to tell Lee if a client or clients are making them feel uncomfortable in any way.

Hiri Sung described the work environment as that of a cooperative. Lee owns the shop, but she doesn’t reinforce a hierarchy of power with the other artists. At Everybody Tattoo, they treat each other as equals and Lee values their input.

Artist Victoria Minji Lee is seen tattooing at her station next to her hanging flash designs.

Lee’s position as the owner gives her more responsibility in maintaining the shop’s culture, so she’s the one to take ultimate action should it be necessary. 

Sung mentioned one issue she’s had at Everybody Tattoo. On numerous occasions, clients in the studio have asked Sung how her baby is doing or made a comment about her baby. 

While the comments were well-intentioned, the problem here is that Sung doesn’t have a baby — Lee does.

Clients were confusing the two artists for one another and it got to the point where Lee had to create an infographic to remind clients that there are two Korean artists in the shop.

Sung described Lee’s leadership as bringing comfort, openness and a higher standard of treatment. Her coworkers feel like they can confide in her without judgment or risk to their jobs. 

Racism in the SLC Tattoo Industry

Despite its deep roots in various indigenous cultures, the tattoo industry consists of mostly white people, namely white men. In an area like Salt Lake City, where Asians make up less than 10% of the city’s population, the population of Asians in the tattoo industry here is extremely low. 

Due to the demographic and political makeup of the state and city, there also exists a lower level of awareness of the various facets of racism, including microaggressions and appropriation. 

One popular request tattoo artists get is for “Asian-inspired” designs. Sung said that she’d received various requests like this, though she takes a hard stance against tattooing Asian art on people who are not of Asian descent, citing cultural appropriation.

When someone uses imagery from another culture, without any knowledge of its history or significance, their actions are defined as appropriation. Lee and Sung described another type of appropriation in tattooing that occurs when a non-Asian artist tattoos Asian designs and therefore reaps the financial benefits. 

Often, people guilty of appropriation defend their actions by claiming that they have cultural appreciation. 

Sung said that people don’t always necessarily have bad intentions, but intent doesn’t outweigh impact. She always appreciates people who own their actions and commit to doing better. 

On her Instagram account and in emails, she states upfront that certain cultural designs can only be requested by people who are a part of that culture. This is her way of cutting down on confrontation in situations like these.

Lee, too, acknowledged the existence of race-related issues, though she hasn’t encountered quite as many requests like the ones Sung has gotten. But in 2021, she limited her tattoos to flash only so she isn’t designing tattoos based on customer requests anymore.

“At the end of the day we’re trying to educate. We’re not trying to, like, keep someone away from the shop just because they make a mistake,” Sung said.

Lee knows that microaggressions will likely not completely disappear, but she recognizes that it could be worse and has hope for the future.

“Thankfully, things are changing in the right direction and people are more sensitive to these things,” Lee remarked, hopeful that the community will continue improving.

On being Asian American in white America

Story by ASIA BOWN

Being a minority in a white community proves to be an exhausting experience for many Asian Americans. They do not look like a majority of their peers and therefore experience a level of separation from them, as well as both implicit and explicit racism.

These instances of racism inspire internal conflict in some Asian Americans. While stereotypes are widely disliked, some Asian Americans find that they identify with them, which can lead to slight identity crises. 

In the absence of a bustling Asian American community, there isn’t a void. People find their own ways to build communities that allow them to be themselves without having to field questions about their identities. 

Racism and feeling like an “other”

“When you’re a kid, you get singled out for your otherness,” said Brian Pham, a senior at the University of Utah, about his childhood in white South Jordan, a city 15 miles south of Salt Lake City.

He often felt singled out for being Asian. As one of the few Asian kids, racial slurs were cast his way at school and he heard his fair share of rude comments about his Asianness. It was the racism he faced from adults, however, that made the biggest impression. 

University of Utah senior Brian Pham poses for a photo taken by a close friend, Nick Tygeson. Photo courtesy of Brian Pham.

Pham described an incident regarding a gym teacher in middle school. “He couldn’t figure me out,” he recalled, recounting that the teacher said, “You have the hair of a Jap [Japanese person] and the last name of a Chinese [person].”

These sorts of explicit racism and microaggressions proved to be extremely exhausting for Pham. He said he feels like he constantly has to explain himself and his identity as an Asian American person, to explain what he is and is not.  

Pham referenced Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” and called discussions about his Vietnamese American heritage ontological. He isn’t just explaining his heritage. The reality is much more philosophical than that.

He pulled the book out of his backpack and flipped through it to locate a favorite passage. “Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining,” he read from the book. “It takes all your powers of persuasion. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. The person has all of Western history, politics, literature and mass culture on their side proving that you don’t exist.”

Pham added that he cannot shed his Asian American identity when he wants to avoid racist people, nor can he choose to “turn it on” when it might help him secure benefits like scholarships.

Wanting to take a break from your identity is rooted not in shame, but fatigue. Like Hong wrote in “Minor Feelings,” being Asian is having to offer a series of explanations defending your entire existence and having to explain why you are or aren’t a certain way. 

These microaggressions and experiences with racism aren’t unique to Pham’s experience. Katrina Mỹ Quyên Lê, a senior at the University of Utah, experienced a slew of racist conversations and actions directed at her Vietnamese and Chinese background while growing up in Taylorsville, Utah.

Katrina My Quên Lê stands in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, photographed by Jaina Lee. Photo courtesy of Katrina My Quên Lê.

When she was in third grade, Lê’s teacher repeatedly told her parents that they should enroll her in English as a second language classes. Lê noted that this wouldn’t have been a problem if her English wasn’t good, but she was reading and writing at similar levels to her white peers. 

Her teacher’s comments were based on racist stereotypes rather than actual instances Lê had demonstrated she needed extra help.

As a kid, she also fielded racist comments from her classmates. Kids made fun of her food, telling her how gross it was. In eighth grade, one boy walked up to her and said some version of, “ping pang wing wang wong.”

Later, her family faced racist comments from neighbors after hosting a barbecue. Unbeknownst to them, such activities had been temporarily banned as a result of a recent fire. Neighbors confronted her parents, asking them if they could speak English. 

Lê’s family wasn’t aware of the ban.

It’s instances like these that may seem small to some people, but leave lasting impressions on the people that have to endure them. 

Internal conflict and learning to celebrate Asian identities

Along with the explicitly racist comments, Lê’s Vietnamese and Chinese heritage often bore the target of implicit racism. Kids at school would ask her if she was good at math or science because she was Asian. 

Not only were these assumptions annoying on a surface level, they also became the subject of internal conflict. Lê was good at math and science, but not because she was Asian. She worked hard and wanted to succeed, but these traits, too, are often interwoven with the perceived Asian American identity. 

As a STEM major, Lê continues to fit the stereotype, but she wanted to be seen as more than that. In fighting the nerdy Asian American trope, she discovered that the best way to feel comfortable in her identity was to create and embody a sort of counterculture that works against the stereotypes, one that’s even stronger.

She aims to feel empowered by her Asian American identity, not held down by it. Salt Lake City Council Member Darin Mano feels similarly about his Japanese American heritage. Mano said he finds inspiration through his Asian heritage that he hopes to channel in his work in city council.

“I don’t want to be beyond racial difference — I want to celebrate it,” Mano said of his identity philosophy in a Zoom interview.

Mano may be a city councilmember for one district, but he said he considers himself to be a representative of the entire Asian American community in Utah. He seeks to help his community through legislation and representation in local politics.

His achievements in race politics include the creation of a commission that governs racial equality in policing with only Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in leadership. For Mano, this was an important step in advancing legislation for people of color, including Asian people.

The commission is also the first to compensate its members for their service. Mano said people expect BIPOC people to do work for free, and in achieving this goal he was able to champion people of color and ensure greater representation.

Building their own communities

While living in a predominantly white area can beleaguer people’s efforts to identify with a larger Asian American community, it does not appear to stop them from building their own communities in which they feel comfortable in their Asian identities.

Pham and Lê grew up and live in white areas, but they’ve managed to find communities wherein their identities are accepted and embraced. They have tight-knit friendships and family groups where they can practice their cultures and create their own traditions. 

Instead of fostering jealousy over the long-held traditions of other families and cultures, Pham is starting his own. On Thanksgiving, his family makes platters of Vietnamese food for everyone to eat, but every year someone will attempt to make a traditional American turkey. Regardless of its success, it’s an aspect of an American holiday that his family has taken and made their own.

Pham said that he’s continuing to build his cultural identity through creating new reasons and ways of celebrating holidays and other parts of life. It’s through these traditions that he can also celebrate his identity.

Lê finds solace in talking about her experiences with friends who can relate. She said that most of the comfort she finds in her community comes from time spent together eating, talking, cooking, and simply being with one another. 

They share their experiences of racism, questions they have about their identities, and they reckon with their own feelings about their identities. Not all of their conversations are so heavy, though, and this balance in her relationships brings her comfort and a sense of belonging.

Mano has also spent the majority of his life in Utah, making a large non-Asian population normal for him. Despite this, he feels a deep sense of community with those around him. He cares about his neighbors and has taken on the responsibility of advocating for Asian Americans in Salt Lake City.

The otherness that Pham discussed may seem like it could inspire feelings of loneliness, but there appears to be a certain resilience among Asian Americans. They don’t abandon all hopes of a community just because they aren’t surrounded by other Asians. Their community-building process consists of gathering the people who make them feel safe and celebrating their identities in various ways.

Pham, Lê, and Mano don’t feel hindered by the absence of a large Asian American community. Instead, they choose to champion their individual communities and work within them to celebrate their identities and cultures.

Andre Montoya

MY STORIES:

MY BLOG:

Going into this, I did know that the term “Asian American” was very broad, and that it was maybe a little too broad. So, I expected to learn about how diverse this community is to Utah, but I was not expecting to learn how integral it is. My peers wrote stories about bakeries, Buddhist temples, and markets that I didn’t know existed and I’ve lived in Salt Lake City my entire life.

It was a learning process for myself getting to know my community. It also was a big step toward becoming a journalist. I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone and pursue ideas that I was not initially sure I could write about.

The part of the story writing process that was challenging for me was the entire interview process. First it’s finding people willing to be interviewed, then it’s the actual interview where I had to have the right questions prepared and maintain a good rapport with the interviewee. It definitely took me out of my comfort zone.

Overall, I know this class has been fundamental to my career development. I was not only able to learn about how the story writing process works, but I was also able to apply strategies in real-time, thanks to Professor Mangun’s help as I powered through the story writing process this semester. Thanks to this class and experience, I know I have a future in journalism.

ABOUT ME:

Andre Montoya is a third-year student at the University of Utah completing his Bachelor of Arts in English and Communication with an emphasis in journalism.

Montoya had always enjoyed writing and decided early on to pursue a career in journalism.

While in high school, Montoya started and maintained a newsroom for local teens in the Glendale library with the lead editor of the Westview, Charlotte Fife-Jepperson, and Salt Lake City public library employee Pablo Abarca. Montoya facilitated discussions and activities for program participants relating to writing and self-expression and helped them publish their own original work in the Westview.

Although the newsroom had to be closed due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Montoya still found it a great experience for building leadership skills and growing as a writer.

Montoya plans to graduate in June 2023 and pursue writing locally before joining a larger publication.

U of U Asian Americans reflect on affirmative action

Story by ANDRE MONTOYA

Serena Marie Aeschilman is currently studying for her master’s degree in Computer Science and is an ASUU senator for the College of Engineering. Photo provided by Serena Marie Aeschilman.

After she had earned an internship opportunity, Serena Aeschilman, a computer science student at the University of Utah, recalled feeling happy. However, she also recalled being told, “‘you only got that because they’re looking for diversity.’”

Because she is a female Asian American student in the field of engineering, Aeschilman wasn’t sure which type of discrimination she was facing from such a comment. However, she did know the legitimacy of her success was being called into question.

Two intertwined factors have challenged the validity of the successes of Asian Americans, a long-standing set of policies known as affirmative action and a stereotype that has persisted for years known as the model minority myth. Now, past and present U students reflect on the link between the two and their personal experiences.

Affirmative action is being challenged in the Supreme Court by Students for Fair Admissions, who allege that Harvard and other Ivy League universities discriminated against them based on their race. Some of the students in this group are Asian American.

“Personally, I support affirmative action and I hope that universities will still be able to use that as a criterion,” said Darin Mano, former adjunct professor of architecture and a U alumnus, in a Zoom interview with Voices of Utah. “It’s not a criterion of ‘are students capable of succeeding at that school,’ it’s ‘how can we create the best educational experience?’”

According to the U’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Title IX, the university does enforce affirmative action but states there are no quotas and says, “These decisions should never be based on someone’s status based on gender or race and all candidates must meet the minimum qualifications for the position.”

Enrollment rates for first-time Asian American freshmen, undergraduate students, and graduate students all hovered at around 6% for Fall 2020, according to the U’s Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis.

Asian students are among the smallest racial demographics at the University of Utah. Graph by Andre Montoya.

In Fall 2019 at the U, Asian students had the highest graduation rate when compared to other racial demographics, with over 80% of Asian students graduating, according to a diversity report from College Factual.

Though the U does not have a large Asian student body, it is a place of achievement for them.

Mano, who now represents District 5 on the Salt Lake City City Council, remembered that the lack of diversity on campus was difficult at times.

“Oftentimes I felt like I was the only minority in most of my classes at the University of Utah,” Mano said when reflecting on his time at the U. “So, I really cherish the experience of being at a place where they were able to select what the makeup of the student body was going to be so they could ensure there were diverse voices.”

Opponents of affirmative action ask that when it comes to the educational experience, how can it be known whether a student of color who was picked was the most qualified of the pool of potential students? They also ask, how can it be an achievement for students of color if they begin from a perceived disadvantaged position?

Sunwhee Park is studying global communication and is a member of ASUU. Photo provided by Sunwhee Park.

“How many qualified POC (people of color) have been denied opportunities in the past simply because of their race and ethnicity, and how many less-than-qualified white people have been given those same opportunities because of historical precedent?” U student Sunwhee Park said in an email. “I encourage people to think about how the status quo became the status quo, and remind themselves that things aren’t correct just because they’ve always been that way.”

Park, a member of the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU), views affirmative action as a way of demonstrating that people of color can be just as successful when given the same opportunities as white Americans and in the larger picture, create a future where such policies are no longer needed.

But with Asian American students doing well at the University of Utah and supposedly being too successful to be accepted into Harvard, what is holding them back?

Sociologist William Peterson coined the term “model minority” in a January 1966 article for New York Times magazine. The article, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” was meant as praise for the Japanese Americans who had spent two decades post-World War II positioning themselves as powerful and successful.

The model minority moniker has typically been applied to East Asian Americans to characterize them as exemplary when it comes to achieving the American Dream regarding the areas of education, employment, and wealth.   

At first glance, one might assume that the model minority myth is a compliment since it praises the accomplishments of Asian Americans and places them as admired and successful members of American society. But its detractors say it’s more akin to a double-edged sword.

“It’s incredibly patronizing and downright fake,” Park said. “The concept doesn’t change how Asians are viewed as perpetual foreigners and still aren’t accepted into many parts of the American cultural and historical narratives.”

The model minority myth uplifts Asian Americans to the level of what white Americans have deemed successful. It’s only a compliment because it separates Asians from other races and accepts them into white spaces, Park said.

As the social and cultural fallout of the coronavirus pandemic in America has shown, Asian Americans are accepted, but only to a certain extent.

Aeschilman, the computer science student, reflected on the amount of anger she felt when confronted with the rise of anti-Asian racism. With the support she felt from the Asian American Student Association chapter at the U, she decided to take her feelings and put them toward something constructive.

Even though she had helped organize a rally in support of Asian Americans, Aeschilman wanted to do more. In January 2022, she wrote a letter to the Utah Daily Chronicle summarizing her feelings, simply titled, “I Am So Angry.”

“I felt like I wasn’t heard when it came to how I felt, or the experiences I’ve had,” Aeschilman said when explaining why she decided to write her letter.

In the letter, she described her experiences facing microaggressions, and how the model minority myth ultimately drowns out the voices of Asian Americans when they speak out against them. But she implores others to reflect on their privileges and support the efforts of the less privileged.

“What I say doesn’t necessarily reflect the experiences of every Asian American here [at the U],” Aeschilman said, “but I feel like everyone should be heard.”

The marvelous teaching of Matthew Okabe

Story and photos by ANDRE MONTOYA

“Teaching is valuable because it really is an art,” Matthew Okabe said.

Originally, Matthew Okabe did not see himself becoming a teacher. However, now that he has dedicated over a decade of his life to teaching, he knows that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Teaching is valuable because it really is an art,” Okabe said in an email interview. “Kids know who really cares. Without teachers, we would be in for a very bleak future.”

His passion for working with kids started when he took a job at a daycare center, when he was in high school.

“I loved helping during homework time and playing various games with the kids,” Okabe said.

When he went to college, he majored in business, but after a year he knew it wasn’t for him. Inspired by his interactions with the kids at the daycare, Okabe decided to pursue teaching.

Okabe earned a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in Education in Curriculum Studies with an emphasis on being a reading specialist from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa.

A graduation gift a student made for Okabe.

He started teaching the fourth and fifth grades at Mountain View Elementary School in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City in 2010 and taught sixth grade for one year at Glendale Middle School.

Although Okabe is a seasoned educator, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic created new challenges for schools. But Okabe’s passion for teaching and his students has kept him steady throughout.

Since he began teaching, Okabe has gained the admiration of his students and his colleagues.

“He is just a lovable guy,” said Tina Misaka, a fellow teacher at Mountain View Elementary, in a Zoom interview. “He is awesome and willing to go the extra mile.”

Misaka, who teaches dance, recalled struggling to convince students to get out of their comfort zone and move. To her surprise, Okabe began dancing himself.

“He was really good,” Misaka said. “By having a teacher participate, the kids can see that they can also be vulnerable that way. It was awesome that he was willing to do that.”

In a newsletter posted in March 2022, Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson III compared the district and its community to a village, saying, “We are a village, and when we work together toward a common goal, providing a world-class education for our children, we will attain success.”

“When we look at a village, we have everyone within that community working toward a collective goal of our school district. That goal should be the success and the achievement of our students,” Gadson said in a Zoom interview. “The teachers are at the ground level. They’re mentoring students, they’re nurturing them making sure students have exactly what they need to contribute to their success.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, teachers have faced an incredible strain. They have had to act as enforcers, encouraging students to social distance or wear their masks. Additionally, they’ve had to adapt to the constant switching between distanced and in-person learning, all on top of their many other responsibilities as educators.

“I think teachers are human like anyone else and that load can become too overwhelming, it can become too much,” Gadson said. “We sometimes forget they’re human, we think that they’re superhuman, but we’ve got to respect the human side of the teacher.”

Inspirational messages from students on Okabe’s classroom door. They say things like “you matter” and “never give up no matter what.”

According to a poll conducted by GBAO Strategies on behalf of the National Education Association in January 2022, the bulk of stress educators are undergoing currently can be attributed to the new slew of challenges the coronavirus pandemic has caused.

That same poll found that more than half of educators are looking to leave their professions earlier than they had initially thought.

There is a community on TikTok that Okabe dubs “Teacher Quit Tok” that showcases teachers who have quit their jobs and found prosperity elsewhere. Though Okabe knows he’s only seeing the videos because of TikTok’s algorithm, he does not see himself quitting his job.

“I don’t feel as though I could leave the profession,” Okabe said.

Gadson has praised the perseverance of teachers as they have navigated the new challenges the pandemic has caused.

“When they had to go online, many of our teachers had not taught online before and it was not a part of their programs when they were in college. But they ramped up, they did exactly what they needed to do to ensure learning continued with students,” Gadson said.

Okabe recalled the struggles that occurred in the early days of the pandemic, such as students not having access to materials, computers, or even the internet at home.

“It was a Friday the 13th and it was just a couple of weeks before spring break,” Okabe said, when remembering the day in March 2020 that Salt Lake City School District closed schools. “We were not ready to transition our classrooms to a full online model. Because of that, there was a steep learning curve for teachers and students.”

Misaka, the dance teacher, who was also adapting to the new remote way of teaching at the time, recalled that Okabe would visit the homes of students who were falling behind to ensure they were doing all right.

“Kids, especially in this area [Glendale] aren’t coming to school and they’re not excited about school because they’ve been home,” Misaka said. “He’s helping them find independence and confidence so that they can do well themselves.”

Now that he can teach in-person again, Okabe is happy and grateful to interact with his students face-to-face and is optimistic about the future.

“I don’t feel as though I could leave the profession. I genuinely enjoy interacting with my students. I enjoy teaching them, helping them learn, watching them grow,” Okabe said. “Sounds corny … sure. But having the opportunity to impact this many lives in a meaningful way is an amazing opportunity that I don’t see in many professions.”

Kenzie Wilkinson

MY STORY:

MY BLOG:

For this beat, I initially expected to have a challenging time finding sources, connecting with individuals from the community, and finding meaningful stories to write. I had concerns about appropriately sharing stories of my sources and felt immense responsibility for the accuracy of my writing.

As I began to form story ideas, I found so many individuals who were willing to share their incredible and unique stories. I learned that other journalists are willing to help find sources, and it was inspiring to be surrounded by other journalists who rooted for each other’s success.

I saw the benefits of networking. It is amazing how interconnected we are as a community. Over the course of the semester, my expectations changed once I realized I had access to all the resources I needed. I had higher standards for myself as a journalist and was able to focus on writing techniques, networking, and exploring the best way to structure my stories.

My beat taught me that there are so many stories that need to be shared, and so many lessons that need to be learned. Here in Utah, there’s a story behind every voice and it is my job as a journalist to represent those voices. Reading these stories about people who come from every walk of life allows us to grow and become better. We can learn from the experiences of others, and that’s what this beat has been all about for me.

Being involved in the Asian American community has opened my eyes to the realities of cultural appropriation, the assimilation of cultures, and the difficulties of being part of a minority. Hearing the stories of Asian American sources whom I interviewed gave me the opportunity to empathize, celebrate and be a part of a culture within our community that I previously had little experience with.

Covering the representation of Asian-American fashion in Utah particularly resonated with me because of my desire to be a fashion designer. I was able to understand the importance of properly representing a culture. It was inspiring to see the confidence that came when one was able to accept and have pride in every part of their identity. It takes confidence to show who you are through clothing, and I am grateful I got to cover this in our beat.

I have had epiphanies about how passionate I truly am when it comes to sharing the voice of individuals. I love to write inspiring stories that help us to connect with one another. I have always wanted a career where I feel I am making a difference, and I feel I am doing that with my writing. I feel much more confident in starting out my career through the experiences I have had during this beat.

I have learned that I am capable of handling hard situations. During this course I have been forced to get outside of my comfort zone. I have gained more confidence in my writing and know I could cover any beat.

ABOUT ME:

Kenzie Wilkinson graduated from the University of Utah in August 2022 with her bachelor’s degree in communication with an emphasis in journalism. During her senior year, she completed an internship with the nonprofit organization GK Folks Foundation. As the foundation’s social media manager, Kenzie oversaw creating and posting content on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. She had the opportunity to help fulfill GK Folk’s goals, which are providing mental health, entrepreneurial, and educational assistance to African immigrants and refugees.

Kenzie also participated in an international study program in Europe. There, she got to chase after her main passion, fashion design. She visited Edinburgh, Paris, and London, where she attended workshops and took classes.

Her academic achievements include being on the Dean’s list six semesters in a row and graduating with a 3.89 GPA.

Kenzie plans to attend fashion design school soon and hopes to continue her career in fashion journalism.  

In her free time, Kenzie enjoys skiing, boating, rock climbing, and heavy weightlifting. She is always trying to find new hobbies to add to her skill set.

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