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.