After having lived in a perpetual state of financial stress, Kasumi Takahashi understands the plight of those in need

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017

“I am proud of being here at SIPA. It’s a very special group of people. When I look around I see the future leaders of the world, people who will do good for the society. To be part of this group is very important to me,” Kasumi Takahashi tells me during our interview.

Takahashi is a 29-year-old from Wilmington, DE who studies Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy at our school. She chose SIPA not only for the diversity but also for the opportunities it offers. “I wanted access to the UN, the NGOs involved in humanitarian work and professors who focus on human rights. This gave me a unique angle where I can approach humanitarian work through the lens of human rights. Everything about the program was very exciting: the diversity of students and the focus on quantitative skills and hands-on work.”

Columbia was her first choice of school for undergraduate studies, but she got waitlisted and went to the University of Pennsylvania instead. With 2 Ivy League schools under her belt, no one would suspect she does not come from a privileged family.

Family restaurant closed in 2008

Takahashi is the oldest of the four daughters of a Japanese father and English mother. While her father never went to college, her mother attended community college while she and her sisters were growing up, from where she received a Master in Education. Her parents opened a Japanese restaurant the year Takahashi was born. The restaurant began recording losses and eventually closed in 2008. “For 22 years, my dad was consumed with this restaurant”, she tells me. “In the last years of the business, we were not doing well but my dad is stubborn so he kept going.”  Her mother supported her father in managing the business, held side jobs such as doing people’s taxes or delivering papers, took care of things for the family, and later began teaching after finishing her studies.

Oldest of four children

For Takahashi, life became very difficult when she was 13 or 14. As the oldest among the four children, she helped her parents with the family business. She assisted with bookkeeping, washed dishes in the kitchen, and waited tables. “It was a lot of stress, for a young kid to be so involved in the family finances. My parents had a lot to deal with and I worried about how I could help them manage.”

When the time came, Takahashi took it in her own hands to apply for college. “My parents didn’t really know how to go through the application process, so it was a lot to figure out.” She was lucky, she says, to have been accepted into Penn with grant money and a scholarship that covered most of her costs. Despite her willingness to study development through a social science lens, her parents encouraged her to go at it from an angle that would provide her with more tangible skills. “My parents said: don’t study political science, you’re just going to sit around talking.” In response, she chose to study engineering, for which she admits she “was not cut out for.” Later, she switched to international relations, which she continues to study.

Feeling like she didn’t deserve to be at Penn

Although an overachiever in high school, Takahashi was not prepared for the rigor of the Ivy League school. The public school she went to did not challenge her enough. When she began her studies at Penn, she “did not know how to keep up with everyone else.” Like many students who come from humble backgrounds and did not receive their education from more academically rigorous schools, Takahashi “was so overwhelmed by this feeling that [she] did not deserve to be there.”

After she graduated, she often switched from being unemployed, to holding low paying positions in the US. In 2011, she joined the Peace Corps in Jordan as a Youth Development Specialist. With a small amount of money she saved from volunteering with the Peace Corps, in 2014, she embarked in a journey that was going to bring her closer to Columbia. “I had a very small amount of money and I moved to NY hoping to find a job. There were a lot of days where I just ate a granola bar and a pack of ramen for the day. I didn’t get a job right away, but eventually I got a temp position at an educational non-profit.”

Perpetual state of financial stress

For the most part, Takahashi’s life has been a “perpetual state of financial stress.”  At SIPA, she continues to be financially-limited. To cover the cost of attending our school she relies on the partial scholarship she receives, the government loans she applied for, and the program assistant job with SIPA News on campus. She thought about looking for another job like waiting tables for more money but she decided against it so that she could devote as much time as possible to her studies.

Many other students in similar financial situation

In her first week as a graduate student, “I had $100 in my bank account and was eagerly waiting for the student loans reimbursements to come in,” she recalls. “I wanted to socialize with people. Everyone would want to go grab lunch, but I couldn’t afford it and found myself trying to avoid going out.” She was afraid to discuss her financial situation with other students, until toward the end of the semester some of her peers started talking about how to apply for food stamps. “Up until that point I didn’t know there were so many other people on the same financial level as me,” she tells me.

After learning from her parents the importance of giving and experiencing the hardships of life, Takahashi hopes to go back to Middle East and help provide education for refugee children. “Knowing what it is like to not have an easy life, made me think about the people in the world who have less than I did. My drive comes from within,” she concludes.

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