Yui Hirose remembers watching Britney Spears on TV as a young person who lived in small town in the South of Japan. “She was my idol,” she said. “It made me want to go to America.” That dream was fulfilled in 2012 when Hirose came to the United States as an international student. Her academic advisor in Japan had attended the University of Nevada, Reno, and told Hirose that Reno—and TMCC—would be the perfect place for her to experience American culture. After all, it had all the elements she loved: there would be snow in the wintertime, and it summers may be hot, but never humid.
“She also told me that it would be affordable,” Hirose said, explaining that the cost of being an international student in the United States would be a hardship for her family—and one that made her determined to make the most out of her time at TMCC. She promised herself that she would go to every class even if she wasn’t feeling well, and that she would do everything she could to be a straight-A student.
Her goal was to work toward an associate of arts degree, the first step toward a career as an interior designer. It was a vocation she enjoyed in her free time, watching the effect of moving furniture, of changing color or light in a space. Her dream was to create an interior design business in partnership with her mother and to offer clients the infinite possibilities that reside within our capacity to change our perception of the world around us.
She arrived in Reno—and became an international student at TMCC—in January 2012. As she had hoped, the snow fell that winter as she settled into a new life in the United States. Much of what she experienced was what she had expected—except for, perhaps, the size of the shopping carts at grocery stores, which were much larger than they are in Japan. One of the first pictures she sent home to her family was a picture of her dwarfed behind the large blue cart from Walmart. She also remarked that people here are more likely to offer a friendly hello or compliment a stranger, acts of kindness that she appreciated.
During her first semester at TMCC, she formed friendships with other students and faculty. “I had really great teachers,” she said. “I had [TMCC Counselor] Cheryl Woehr for EPY 101 and [English Faculty] Angela Adlish and Anne Witzleben for my English classes.” These faculty, especially, would become an integral part of Hirose’s journey to commencement that would take nearly a decade, and truly define the word Hirose feels articulates the essence of her experience: resilience.
After spending the summer in Japan, Hirose returned to TMCC in August 2012. On a cold day in October, she had just gotten off the bus and was crossing North Virginia Street when she was struck by a van. Of the accident itself, Hirose said she remembered nothing. She was rushed to Renown in critical condition. Her mom would fly from Japan three days later to be by her daughter’s side.
Whatever dreams, aspirations, hopes or goals Hirose had had, happenstance and tragedy would change all of that. Her future—and her journey—would be much longer than she would have expected. And yet, as hard as it would be, this would also be a new beginning.
Entering an Alternate Timeline
Hirose remained at Renown Hospital in Reno for three months. She had two broken legs, two broken arms, a broken pelvic bone, and swelling of the brain. Several machines monitored her vital signs, and she had been given a tracheostomy to keep her breathing. “I couldn’t speak to my mom,” she said. “That was so hard.”
As her body healed, thoughts of being a college student faded into the background. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t walk, I had to be in bed,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I would ever go back to normal life. My accident changed everything… but even then, I was just so happy to be alive. That was the biggest change, my accident changed my mind to just be happy to be alive.”
After three months at Renown, Hirose was in a stable enough condition to return to Japan. Her condition worsened, and she had to go through two additional surgeries, one to remove a brain plate to alleviate swelling of the brain that had occurred due to an infection.
“I stayed a year in the hospital in Japan for rehab,” she remembered, noting that she followed an unwavering daily schedule, which included precise times to wake and sleep, and to have meals. Although the schedule didn’t change, it was a stressful time for Hirose. She wondered if she would ever be the same person again; and if she would ever live her dream of returning to the United States to complete her college education.
Despite the distance, Woehr, Adlish and Witzleben kept in touch with Hirose as she continued to recover from her injuries. “They sent me messages,” she said. “They kept in touch… and they told me that they worried about me, and that I should come back to TMCC when I got better.”
In 2017, Hirose began taking online classes. “I also got a Green Card,” she said. As an international student, the requirements that prohibited Hirose from working had made affording tuition, fees and other expenses difficult. A Green Card would enable Hirose to work, and to earn enough to pay for her education at TMCC herself.
She returned to Reno in late 2019. By February 2020, she got a job working at a Sushi restaurant and came back to TMCC to take classes. Her friends–those she had met during her first semester at TMCC in 2012–had long since graduated from the college, and returned to Japan. Though she was often lonely, TMCC faculty continued to encourage and support her as she took class after class.
Returning to an English-speaking life was a challenge (hardly anyone spoke English in her small town in Japan), but the ability to work and take classes became something other than a hardship. “Life is a miracle,” she said.
My Grad Story: Resilience
The word resilience comes from the Latin verb “resilire” which, at its heart, means “to leap” in much the way that a coiled spring will return to its original shape after being compressed. It’s a return to one’s natural state even after outside circumstances do their best to make us small. After many meetings with Woehr, the word became one that Hirose uses to define her own life journey. Although it took nearly ten years, this year she will cross the commencement stage at TMCC to earn her associate of arts degree, and to once again begin her journey toward becoming an interior designer.
It is not without sadness that Hirose remarks that October 2022 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the accident. And to be sure, there are still relics: metal plates still support her pelvis and hurt sometimes. Yet, it is the return to her life of which she is most proud. “I am happy to be alive and in America. I have a job, and I can communicate. I am proud of myself.”
To other students in pursuit of certificates and degrees, Hirose offers advice to other college students who are just starting their journeys. When she was an international student, she never skipped classes, was always on time—knowing her mother and grandparents paid her tuition and expenses motivated her to do her very best. This dedication came at the cost of her happiness. Although Hirose continues to perform exceptionally well in her classes, her focus has shifted. “Keeping good grades is not everything. It is OK to skip classes one day if you do not feel good,” she said. “Every single day is important. Living your life every day—to be happy—that is the best thing.”
Celebrating the Class of 2022: My Grad Story
Every year, TMCC celebrates our graduates through a multi-platform campaign that tells the stories of our students’ journeys to the commencement stage. However, members of the class of 2022 will have a unique experience of having their academic and personal lives altered due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our graduates embody diversity in every imaginable way, and in these series of stories we will celebrate their journey to the commencement stage and beyond. This is one part of a multi-story series we will continue to run through May.