Sara Onitsuka

Sara Onitsuka

Portland, Oregon
Major: Neuroscience

Activist Sara Onitsuka is seeking for solutions to inequality in ways that are antithetical to a Japanese cultural concept called "gaman." A Japanese American from Portland, Oregon, Onitsuka realized shortly after arriving at Wooster that she wanted to do more than major in neuroscience while she was here. "After the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile during the summer of 2016, I was feeling so frustrated with my own inaction, and was wondering what I could do."

"Gaman" means "bearing the unbearable." Onitsuka began organizing ways to call out and stop the unbearable. Asian-Americans, she says, have played a role in anti-black biases and discrimination. "We've been called the 'successful model minority', and this stereotype has been used to say to other communities of color, 'See? These guys can do it. Why can't you?'

"The stereotype ignores the communities within the Asian umbrella who are struggling—like Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong. It forgets about differences in history, by comparing enslaved black people to immigrants. Achieving solidarity between Asian and black communities is important because black people have been fighting for the rights of all people of color for so long. Their civil rights victories have helped all of us. It's time that we gave back."

And so Onitsuka joined the Asian American international group Letters for Black Lives, where her work resulted in an invitation to speak on a panel at a convention of the Asian American Journalists Association. As president of The College of Wooster's ASiA (Asia Supporters in Action) group, she spearheaded a joint event with the college's Men of Harambee fraternity for men of color.

Onitsuka's thinking about her own course of study and future career was jolted by a comparative political science class that analyzed large-scale political violence. "We talked about the fact that there is never a time when torture and terrorism aren't happening in the world." The course prompted her realization that a neuroscience focus could be useful in studying torture and in researching other ways that political violence affects the brain. Could she combine her interest in neuroscience and her passion for social justice? At Wooster, where students design their own research, the answer was "Yes!"

Onitsuka has begun her junior Independent Study (which sets the parameters for her senior Independent Study) in which she plans to research how the exposure of lead affects aggression levels in male betta fish. "With what is happening in Flint, Michigan and in other American cities and indigenous reservations, lead exposure is a hot topic," she says. "Recent research indicates that lead exposure can lead to violent crime."

The nation's political unrest is always on her mind. "It's been hard since the election to focus on anything besides politics, but sometimes we just need a break." Respite comes, she says, through exercise and by singing in the Wooster Chorus and with the a cappella group, COWBelles.

Onitsuka has already identified a graduate school that focuses on dual degrees in neuroscience and public policy and is also considering a law degree that would concentrate on those areas. "One of the drawbacks of scientists is that they often lack an interdisciplinary expertise," she says. "I think this combination of skills could be very useful."

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