Okinawa Association Honors High School Scholars

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From left: Jared Matsuda, father of Rick Matsuda, Sebastian Guerrero, Romi Takara, Jamie Tokumoto, Leanna Ching, Josephine Ikehara, Akemi Karamitsos and Joshua Higa. Not pictured: Madison Tamashiro. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Okinawa Association of America recognized outstanding high school scholars at its annual picnic this month. The awards honor the academic and service achievements of young Okinawans in the organization.

Following are profiles:

Akemi Karamitsos (Yamauchi Scholarship)

Akemi is the daughter of John and Kim Karamitsos and graduated from Ernest Righetti High School in Santa Maria. She was valedictorian of her class and a four-year California Scholarship Federation member, as well as an Honor Roll member every semester of her high school career.

She’s won numerous awards such as Scholar Athlete, National Merit Scholar, Marine Corps Distinguished Athlete, a Santa Barbara County Science Fair medal for her work on excessive sales of disposable plastic bottles and MVP of her junior varsity volleyball team. She is also the recipient of various scholarships from the Santa Maria Elks Club, Rotary Club and school district.

She tutored students in low-income housing, led workshops on grant-making and helped feed the homeless.

She credits her Bachan with her tenacity, explaining that her Bachan’s struggle from working on a plantation to losing her son in World War II taught Akemi that “Even in daily life, Okinawans on the mainland of Japan are discriminated against…It is not fair in any sense, but in a way it helped our people to become stronger, like my Bachan.”

Akemi will attend UCLA in the fall, majoring in political science.

Romi Takara (Higashi Scholarship)

Romi is the daughter of Tim and Traci Takara and a graduate of Culver City High School. She is a CSF member, and was on the Honor Roll every semester of high school. She was active in the MESA Club and Asian Culture Union, and captain of the Cross Country team.

In addition, she’s played for both the Tigers basketball club as well as through Venice Youth Council. She represented her school in the National Sports Medicine competition and the JPL invention challenge. She has tutored fellow students, volunteered at the L.A. Food Bank and at the OAA Bazaar.

In her elementary days, she attended El Marino, a Japanese immersion school, and states of her experience, “I once thought that I was put at a disadvantage because my first educational experiences were in a language that was foreign to me. However, I realized that attending El Marino was one of the greatest privileges as I decided to partake in many cultural activities in school … I remind myself that I can attain my furthest goals if I am able to push through during the times that I find most difficult.”

She will attend UC Berkeley in the fall, majoring in nutritional science.

Jaime Tokumoto (Kamiya Scholarship)

Jaime, the daughter of Gary and Irene Tokumoto, graduated from Pasadena High School. She was a member of the California Scholarship Federation and president of the Visual Arts Club. She played bass clarinet in the marching band and has volunteered at the Pasadena Humane Society, at the Rose Bowl, and as a teacher’s assistant and math tutor.

She was raised with her Obachan and Jichan, placing a high value on education, and understood the struggles and hardships they went through to obtain an education in Okinawa.

Jaime states, “I personally have carried these values that my parents introduced to me at a young age, such as being early and studying hard. I appreciate the difficulties that my Obachan had in getting an education. I am determined to graduate from college because I know education is important to my parents, and Obachan and most of all to myself.”

She will attend Cal Poly Pomona in the fall to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering, hoping to work in the filed of 3D modeling and computer-aided design.

Leanna Ching (Miyahira Scholarship)

Leanna, the daughter of Gregory and Betty Ching, graduated from Redondo Union High School. She was a member of the California Scholarship Federation and received scholarships from the Hollywood Dodgers and the Redondo Beach PTA. She played basketball for both the Dodgers and her school, and took the team to the CIF Championships last year.

She’s active in the community, having worked with Walk with Sally, a nonprofit helping children whose families have been affected by cancer; with Heal the Bay for beach clean-up; and with the OAA at the annual bazaar.

This dedicated student won a Perfect Attendance Award and was recognized for having missed not a single day of school since kindergarten.

Leanna’s work ethic is obvious and she says that in her family, “Education is prioritized; however, the importance of one’s character is emphasized daily. I was taught to be respectful to others, especially elders, be honest, responsible, optimistic, compassionate and lastly to set goals and reach them with perseverance.”

She will attend Arizona State University in the fall to study nursing.

Josephine Ikehara (Kishimoto Scholarship)

Josephine is the daughter of Pablo Ikehara and Elisa Toyama and a graduate of John F Kennedy High School. She played volleyball, tennis and track and was a participant of the International Baccalaureate Program, through which she helped fill backpacks for homeless children.

She writes, “I would love to continue doing small projects like this one because seeing the happiness and excitement on the children’s faces when we donated all of the backpacks was heartwarming.”

Josephine is a member of the Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko group, which she says has pushed her to be more outgoing and helped her learn more about her Okinawan culture.

She will attends Cal State Northridge in the fall, majoring in visual effects.

Sebastian Guerrero (OAA Scholarship)

Sebastian is the son of Ernesto and Patricia Guerrero, and a graduate of Oxnard High School. He is member of the California Scholarship Federation and Honor Roll. He was captain of the dodgeball team and helped cheer his school on with the Spirit Section.

He volunteered with his church, doing blood drives, refereeing volleyball games, and helping to gather Red Cross donations during the devastating fires in Southern California.

Sebastian has visited Okinawa and attended the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, learning a lot about the history and what Okinawans had to endure during World War II.

He says his main influences in life are his family and community, and he writes, “My community has taught me one big thing, and that is to be thankful you are alive and able to tell your loved ones you love them. Even when on bad terms, you shouldn’t shun or fight with the ones you love because in a blink of an eye they can be gone.”

He will attend CSU Monterey Bay in the fall, majoring in environmental science.

Jared Matsuda (OAA Scholarship)

Jared is the son of Pastor Rick and Wendy Matsuda and a graduate of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School. He was a four-year member of the California Scholarship Federation as well the National Art Honors Society. He was awarded Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of his school’s volleyball team, and helped with the Special Olympics.

He is very active in his church, teaching at Vacation Bible School, volunteering with Sunday School and feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving, while holding down a job at The Loft.

Jared says, “Being Okinawan means so much to me and I take pride in being a part of such a strong, hard-working and loving bloodline. This scholarship would help me with my studies in college, and I hope that one day I will have the privilege of traveling to Okinawa to learn more and more about it.”

Jared will attend CSU East Bay in the fall, majoring in sociology.

Madison Tamashiro (OAA Scholarship)

Madison is the daughter of Faith Tamashiro and a graduate of South Torrance High School. She played four years of varsity basketball, and served as commissioner of fine arts and historian as well. She was awarded a scholarship from the Tigers Youth Organization and was involved with dance and lip-sync competitions with her classmates.

She was a volunteer middle school coach, and went to Nevada to help fix houses for SSP.

Madison states, “Learning that I was Okinawan, at first I wasn’t sure what that meant until I started taking Japanese in high school. My interest in the history and culture started when I was only in 5th grade and has continued as I got older.”

She also hopes to help people of this community deal with stress and anxiety and hopes to become a therapist someday.

She will attend the University of Oregon in the fall, with a major in psychology.

Joshua Higa (OAA Scholarship)

Joshua is the son of Ellen Higa and a graduate of Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights. He was a scholar athlete, making the CIF quarterfinals in basketball, and was recognized by the Suburban Optimist Club with a Fukushima Youth Award.

He also achieved the prestigious Eagle Scout honor last year and earned many awards through the Scouts for marksmanship, sharpshooting, and patrol leader. He’s hiked over a 100 miles and camped 100 nights.

Josh is very active in the community, assisting not only with Boy Scouts, but also with the Orange County Buddhist Church, Suburban Optimist Club and Keiro Nursing Home. He was also a two-year member of the Yonsei Basketball team.

Of that experience, he writes, “We call ourselves the Yonsei 22 because we were the 22nd Yonsei group, and I consider them my second family. Of course after going to Japan, hanging out and travelling up north for basketball tournaments, we were already really close but they also helped me during my darkest time. During my freshman year, my father unexpectedly passed and it really flipped my world upside down. Luckily, my friends, including the people of Yonsei, helped not only me, but my entire family.”

He will continue to treasure those friendships made through basketball and Boy Scouts.

Josh heads to the University of the Pacific in the fall to study health science.

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