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At 58, Undergrad Earns a Higher Degree of Esteem

The Cal Lutheran senior left his home and family in Japan to fulfill a dream of attending college in America -- dorm life and all.

May 16, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Masamichi Kira has waited much of his life for this moment.

As a college freshman in Tokyo in 1964, he was forced to drop out of school to help run a family business -- an obligation he kept for more than three decades.

Now, at age 58, the international student will graduate with honors from Cal Lutheran University, completing four years of study in political science and a lifelong dream.

But on the eve of his graduation, Kira says he is just as sad as he is excited.That is because his commencement Saturday means he must leave the close-knit Thousand Oaks campus community that welcomed him so completely -- even when he took the highly unusual step of living in dormitories, among boisterous undergrads.

"Even though the age difference was so big," said the soft-spoken Kira, "the students and the faculty, they really accepted me."

Kira, known affectionately around campus as "Michi," enrolled as a full-time student at Cal Lutheran in 1999, temporarily leaving his wife Keiko and three adult sons behind in Japan.

Rather than live by himself in an off-campus apartment, he chose to live in the school's large freshman residence hall. Like any other newcomer, the then-54-year-old learned to adjust to roommates, communal bathrooms and, yes, dorm food.

In his culture, he said, it is customary to finish "every last grain of rice" on your plate. But two weeks of doing so in the campus cafeteria, he said, resulted in "a problem with my belt."

"I had to change my food philosophy," he said, chuckling.

He also signed up for "University Life 101," a course designed to help teenagers make the transition from high school to college. In between long hours of studying, he attended most of the freshman events, pep rallies and all, snapping pictures with his ubiquitous digital camera.

Lynda Paige Fulford, university spokeswoman, said she has gotten to know Kira and has been impressed with his courage, ambition, perseverance and patience.

"I know I wouldn't be able to go live in a college dormitory at this point," said Fulford, who is also a Cal Lutheran graduate. "He was willing to give up so many comforts of home, go back and live with traditional college-age kids in order to get the full experience. I have nothing but admiration for that man."

There was culture shock for Kira when he first came to Cal Lutheran, in addition to the obvious generation-gap issues.

But his fellow students quickly made him feel comfortable, he said. Because he spent so much time poring through his books in the freshman dorm study lounge, students renamed it "Michi Room."

"Not 'Michi's room,' but 'Michi Room,' as if Michi stands for studying," he said.

His current dorm, designed for upperclassmen, is more private -- though Kira still shares a room with someone the same age as his youngest son.

Computer science major Sam Fahmie, 22, of Orange County, said he and Kira's other roommates have gotten used to living with someone much older. Fahmie said he admires Kira for being such a hard worker and gets a kick out of his roommate's "strange habits."

"He always wears a full set of pajamas, even if he's just taking a nap," Fahmie said. "And I've never seen his bare foot hit the floor -- he's always got on sandals or shoes."

Kira, who hopes to enter graduate school in the U.S., was born in war-torn Tokyo in 1944, and suffered many setbacks growing up. His mother died unexpectedly when he was 7 years old. His father, a private in the transportation corps of the Japanese army, lived through the battles of World War II, but died of stomach cancer when Kira was 14.

Then, while Kira was a freshman at the Anglo-American Department of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the president of his family's nursery company, Nisshoku Garden Ltd., died, and Kira was expected to assume the responsibility.

Throughout his years in Japan, Kira had a constant interest in learning English, an interest first sparked in junior high school. He recalls taping English-language news broadcasts and radio shows aired on the Far East Network -- including "Dragnet" and "I Love Lucy" -- and playing them over and over.

In 1976, he spent six months at an English-as-a-second-language program at Cal State Fresno. There, he met and married Keiko.

It was Kira's wife who encouraged him to study abroad in the late 1990s. The couple hired an educational consultant, who suggested Cal Lutheran because of its location in one of California's safest large cities and the promise of small class sizes.

He showed up carrying two suitcases and having no idea what to expect. But within several months, and especially after an article about him ran in the school paper, he knew he found his "home away from home."

Now, when he strolls around the green, hilly campus, nearly every student he passes flashes him a smile, a wave or a "Hey, Michi!"

Many of them know him from informal Japanese cooking classes he has held every semester. Earlier this month, he threw a large dinner for the students, treating them to his famous marinated teriyaki chicken, fried rice and curry.

Herb Gooch, chairman of the political science department at Cal Lutheran, said he would often lend Kira his car for the food-shopping trips.

Gooch said that Kira was a fantastic student who contributed a wealth of intellectual and cultural knowledge to his classes.

Still, he said, the mild-mannered Japanese student may best be remembered for his food.

"One of his lasting legacies will be that he helped turn a whole generation of CLU students onto Japanese cuisine," Gooch said.

"And that's no meager accomplishment."

FYI

Undergraduate commencement services begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in Mount Clef Stadium at Cal Lutheran University, 60 West Olsen Road, in Thousand Oaks.

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