Felicia Yamaguchi Lives Up to Her Name

Above: Felicia Yamaguchi with her family at her high school graduation. | Image courtesy of Felicia Yamaguchi

Felicia Yamaguchi, Class of 2021, is an Alumni Scholar in The Achievement Award Program (TAAP). Felicia reflected on her cultural background and experiences at Cal at The Achievement Award Program 21st Recognition Celebration. Below is a transcript of her speech.

Thank you, Dio! I’m glad to be able to speak before you all tonight, and hope you all are doing well.

My name is Felicia Yamaguchi. My first name derives from the Spanish word feliz, meaning happiness, and my last name derives from the Japanese word for mountain, signifying unwavering strength. With that being said, you can say my mother had high expectations for the person I would become.

Unfortunately, growing up, I was not always happy, and I was not always strong. My first few years of life were spent in Yokosuka, Japan, where my older sister was the only other Black person I would see. No one wanted to be our friend because of our Blackness, and my mother, who was the only loving Japanese person in our lives, was always gone working two jobs to support us.

As a result, I was thrilled when I heard that my mother would be marrying a US sailor and we would be moving to the United States. But, coming to America wasn’t as easy as I had presumed. I didn’t understand any English and struggled to make conversation without the help of my parents. When I started elementary school, my teachers had no patience with me and blatantly told my mother to stop speaking Japanese to me at home. Thinking she was doing what was best for her children at the time, she obliged. I learned English quite quickly after that. But, at what cost? I ended up losing my native language.

I thought things would get easier once I became Americanized, however, as I got older, I realized that as long as I was Black, I would never truly be accepted. I’ve been shown that my life does not matter. Constantly seeing Black men and women lynched was disheartening, exhausting, and outright scary. They could’ve been me, my father, or one of my sisters.

Fortunately, my name has never changed. I have always been Felicia Yamaguchi, the person who my mother said would be happy and strong. My name was a constant reminder of who I wanted and needed to be.

“My involvement on campus has pushed me to not only gain a sense of purpose but also a sense of happiness and strength. Helping others reach their full potential made me realize my own.”

Entering Cal, I refused to let my mother’s hope for me amount to nothing. My most profound experiences here have included being in the school’s African American Theme Program, which allowed me to be surrounded and educated by other Black students and eventually become a teacher’s assistant for the course three years later. I was the number three player for the school’s squash team, through which I travelled to the East Coast for numerous tournaments; I worked at a non-profit organization in which I coached primary and secondary students in squash; I helped incarcerated folks at San Quentin State Prison obtain their GEDs through Cal’s Teach in Prison DeCal; and I am part of the TAAP community, through which I not only receive financial assistance, but also career guidance.

As someone who aspires to become an educator and work to dismantle systems of inequity in the classroom, these experiences have all been so significant in my development. In addition, my involvement on campus has pushed me to not only gain a sense of purpose but also a sense of happiness and strength. Helping others reach their full potential made me realize my own. Finding community has destroyed my feelings of ostracization and helped me feel more confident. Coming to Cal and being involved in these organizations and programs has allowed me to embody the meaning of my name.

I say all of this to instill in you that in order for there to be light, there must be darkness. Growing up, I did not expect to be where I am today. We all have some form of light to bring out into our community. Take advantage of the privilege you hold by attending the number one public university in the world and being part of the TAAP program. There are people here that want to see you succeed.


Young lady, you are an inspiration to all of humanity. Reading what you had to say in your speech was like a breath of fresh air. I see nothing but great things in your future. Shoot for the moon, and never give up.
You GO, girl! We’ve got your back. And it’s our pleasure to help.
OMG maybe there is hope for humanity yet :) What an outstanding message, and so perfectly expressed. Just WOW. Thank you, Felicia!
Brava, Felicia! It will be by having more educators like you in the future that walls of divisiveness will come down. Never stop learning and sharing your talent!
Felicia Yamaguchi, - thank you for your reflections. Continue to be your ‘whole’ self- it is important to relearn your first language. It is important to be who you were/are as a Japanese woman and as an American woman and of African descent. I lived in W. Africa, and know a Felicia. I live in America and know a Yamaguchi. Most people are not just one ethnicity…. but are a reflection of their ancestors and their personal interests/ major-e.g. music. (l.e., mine is science). Best wishes.
What a wonderful young person. I definetly would be proud to call her daughter. Reading this article brought tears to my eyes. I am proud to call her my young Black sister.
Very inspiring, so proud you came to Cal…
Congratatulations. You are a superb example of what a great public university can provide: in depth classroom learning plus external growng experiences through sports teams and service. You have put the “universe” in university. Makato ni arigatoo gozaimashita!~
Beautiful! Wishing you the very best in your bright future as you go towards reaching the top of that “happiness mountain.” Gambatte!
Congratulations Felicia, Your greatest achievement to date is not letting others define you. You are a unique individual and this achievement will bring you happiness and great achievements in the strife of life in the future! Lee Schumann, Cal ’67
HI, Congratulations on your achievements, the important lesson you have learnt is that life is always a challenge and you grow stronger and wiser from your struggles. Keep going. My only suggestion is to relearn you mother tongue, I assume Japanese, learn Spanish and master English. Languages are the tools of understanding and accepting different cultures. I studied physiology at CAL but speak German and Italian which have opened so many doors in my life. GO for It!!
It’s a strange thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you often get it. You found community at Cal and add to everyone’s life. You are indeed a superb inspiration.
Felicia, you’re a ray of sunshine. Obviously very talented, you’ll go far in life. Your character and your achievements are a pride to us all in the CAL community. CAL is treasure and a wonderful place that you should cherish now because, trust me, you’ll miss it once you’re gone. You remind me of myself a bit as a young child. When we got political asylum in this country, I only spoke Spanish. Yet after a while, English took over and I would have forgotten Spanish if not for my mom’s relentless after school instruction. From experience, I urge you to relearn Japanese - it’s in the back of your mind, wanting to come out. It’s easier to get perspective and see where you’re going if you know where you’ve come from. You can understand a culture so much better if you speak the language. You can understand and communicate with so many more people, understand so many more things, and have so many more professional opportunities if you do. It’s great and enviable to have so many good options as you do in this stage of your life. Best wishes!
I love reading stories about inspirational Bears…you will make a big difference in this world! Go Bears!!
I graduated from Cal in 1994, and my experience was bittersweet (more bitter than sweet). I felt like Cal wasn’t helping African American students at all. But looking at you gives me hope. I am so glad that Cal has been a good place for you! Keep doing what you’re doing!!! YOU INSPIRE ME :) Go Bears & Go Felicia!!!
What a beautiful story, Felicia! As an educator I am delighted that you have chosen a career in education. You are the future. The future is now. I welcome the opportunity to chat with you about the field! Let’s Link on LinkedIn!
I am Asian and Cal wasn’t helping me any thing other than giving the best chance to learn, compete and excel. Thank you Cal

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