During the start of her freshman year at UT Austin, Rinka Ko was taken aback by the sheer size of the campus. When she learned about the Japanese Association, she quickly joined to make new friends and feel a sense of home.
“UT was a lot to absorb,” says Ko, who was born in Hiroshima, Japan and is half Japanese, half Chinese. “I attended high school at an international school in Shanghai, which had a graduating class of about 100 students, and there wasn’t much diversity. That’s why I like being a part of the Japanese Association. Our officers are passionate about sharing our culture with students here at UT and embracing diversity.”
Of all the campus events she organizes, her favorite is the Golden Week Festival. Held on April 9 this year, the event recreates Golden Week in Japan that celebrates several national holidays. Activities include live performances, Yo-Yo Tsuri (water balloon fishing), goldfish scooping, origami lessons and a feast of traditional Japanese cuisine to recreate the authentic matsuri vibe in Japan.
“Golden Week is our biggest annual event,” says Ko, who spent many hours preparing hundreds of strawberry daifuku (mochi treats) and trays of yakisoba (fried noodle dishes). “Even though it’s a lot of work—and many hours of food prep—I really look forward to the excitement of planning every year.”
While preparing traditional dishes, Ko thinks of her home in China, where she often helped her mother hand-roll sushi in the kitchen.
“One of my favorite aspects of Japanese culture is my mom’s cooking,” Ko says. “On New Year’s, she wakes up very early to make osechi ryori, which is a set of small traditional dishes served in beautiful layered bento boxes. Each item in the tray represents a particular wish for the next year, such as wealth, happiness, scholarship, health and longevity.”
Living so far from home can be painful at times, Ko says. But she is grateful for her daily FaceTime chats with her parents and brother. Her busy schedule of coursework, internships and event planning also help to keep the loneliness at bay. She also took solace in singing and giving live performances in front of the UT Tower or the Gregory Gym Plaza.
“I get homesick, but to put things in perspective, my dad could only talk to his parents through letters back when he was studying abroad and living alone in Japan,” Ko says. “I’ve been trying to keep myself busy, and one way is through performing around campus as a vocalist in all three languages.”
In addition to the Japanese Association, Ko joined the American Medical Student Association, the Texas Brain Exercise Initiative and Healing with Harmonies. This summer, she looks forward to job-shadowing doctors at several medical facilities in Houston and starting her research internship at UTHealth.
No matter what challenges lie in her way, Ko is determined to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Her advice to students is to keep looking for opportunities that can help make the impossible possible.
“If you see an opportunity that interests you, go get it,” Ko says. “Just reach out to people, look for options and see what UT has to offer. Take hold of the ‘American dream’ mindset and believe in your ability to achieve a lot.”