On a Sunday in Charlottesville, I was standing outside in a torrential downpour with my dress shoes covered in mud. The unforgiving rain hammered hard into my graduation cap causing its inner cardboard to droop and mold to the shape of my head. The weather on that May morning in 2003 was so bad, it would later be regarded as the worst weather for a graduation in UVA’s history. Nevertheless, nothing could stop me from walking the Lawn. I looked ahead and slowly walked forward, being careful not to slip.
After about 20 feet, I heard a woman’s voice yelling my middle name, “Ayumu,” which coincidentally is the Japanese word for “to walk.” I looked up and saw my mother and grandmother, both of whom battled the weather and thousands of uncomfortable families to watch me walk the Lawn. They both know that graduation represents not only a degree but also an entrance into a new world of independence and adulthood. I was extremely proud, but, unbeknownst to me, it would not be my proudest moment on the Lawn.
In 1979, my mother, Asato Maehata, took a big risk. Knowing little English and with no money, she left her home in Japan and moved to San Francisco with aspirations for a music career. A year later, she would unexpectedly become pregnant with me. She took me to New York City and worked long hours as a secretary in the World Trade Center. In her spare time, she focused on music and sang in nightclubs. In 1988, she took her savings and moved to Virginia Beach, where she earned a living as a massage therapist working from home while raising me as a single mother. Thankfully, her mother-in-law and my grandmother, Selma Pluznick, helped our small family financially and paid for my high school education and later my college tuition.
For years, my mother witnessed the benefits that I got from education. Deep down, she wished that she could go back to school, but she didn’t have the time or the resources. When I left for college, she had more time on her hands and could focus on her lifelong goals. She made a full-length jazz album. She tasted success but was not fully satisfied. She dabbled with online college classes through the local community college. After I graduated from UVA, she earned an associate’s degree at Tidewater Community College.
My mother not only excelled in her studies, but she also was inspired and excited by them. She wanted to push herself and learn more. She applied to a new adult completion program for a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) degree from the University of Virginia. The BIS program is a part-time undergraduate degree program that builds on previous college work and offers liberal arts courses that promote critical thinking and analytical skills. She was accepted and devoted the next three years to her degree. She graduated with a highest-distinction award and a nearly flawless GPA.
On May 18, 2009, I visited the Lawn for the first time since I graduated six years ago. I watched hundreds of graduates stroll by in their caps and gowns. When I saw the BIS graduates start their walk, I begged the people in front of me to let me through for a moment so I could stand in the exact spot where my mother stood when she watched me walk the Lawn. I yelled, “Mom!,” and she turned to look at me. She is 61 years old, but her smile had the vibrancy of the 22-year-olds around her. Everyone around me cheered as she posed for a snapshot. That was my proudest moment at the University of Virginia.