A poignant journey

Takashi Yanagi lost his mother, his house and his security while still in high school. From this unimaginable tragedy, he forged a determination to continue his dream to attend Notre Dame.

At first glance, Takashi Yanagi didn’t seem all that different from all the other high school students at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. A model student, he attended classes, took piano lessons and volunteered at the local hospital.

Unbeknownst to his fellow students and teachers, his home life was in shambles. His mother, Emi Yanagi, who was raising her son alone, had been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer midway through his junior year of high school. As her condition worsened, he became her sole caretaker, assuming all the household responsibilities she had previously handled, from shopping for groceries to paying the bills. It was several months before his teachers and guidance counselor learned of his predicament.

“I didn’t really want to talk about it,” said Yanagi. “I just went through the motions of going to school and doing my homework. I felt like a robot back then. I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening and how my life was going to be afterwards.”

Yanagi is now a junior studying finance at Mendoza College. He’s soft-spoken, smart and driven, like so many of his classmates. People who do know about his story of facing down heartache, loss and financial challenges at such a young age—so unlike many of his classmates—usually haven’t heard it from him. But it’s clear that the lessons he learned during that time have proved invaluable as he’s navigated Notre Dame, fulfilling his mother’s dreams of her only son attending college at a top-ranked university.

He credits his success in life to his mother, a software developer at John Deere and a single mother who raised him by herself for 13 years. “She was the strongest woman I knew,” he said. “She struggled every week to provide for us.”

Two Together

The two were a small but tight-knit family; they’d immigrated to America together from Tokyo when he was a little boy. The pair settled down in West Des Moines, buying a house and putting down roots in the community and local church. She was involved in every aspect of his life, encouraging him to do his homework, taking him to piano lessons and bringing him to church with her every Sunday, he said.

In the evenings, he would play piano for her in their living room, helping her relax at the end of a long day at work. “When I played piano, she could just sit there and forget about all the stress in her life,” he said. “Those were magical moments for us.”

'She was the strongest woman I knew. She struggled every week to provide for us.'

When she became ill, Yanagi was at first able to handle the household chores and duties on his own. But as her illness progressed and she required operations and hospitalization, eventually at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., he finally reached out to the community that his mother had worked so hard to cultivate during her time in America, especially their friends at the Westchester Evangelical Free Church, where the two were members.

He also reached out to his guidance counselor, Larry Mandernach, who gave him advice on how not to just succeed in school, but how to be a homeowner and take on financial responsibilities. A member of Yanagi’s church soon became his financial advisor, and the church’s pastor agreed to become the executor of his mother’s estate.

“Many, many people began to rally around him and his support system began to include some very connected people,” Mandernach said.

A Scholarship and a Selfie

Yanagi had no choice but to sell the family’s house and car to meet living expenses, medical bills and save money for college. A family from his church took him in, and he lived with them during the rest of his senior year of high school. In the midst of all this, Yanagi was preparing his college applications and trying to make plans for his future. He talked to his mother about college plans, but shielded her from getting too involved.

“I didn’t want to bother her with small stuff when she was dealing with such big life issues,” he said. “I took it upon myself to complete it successfully because I had to.”

His mother passed away the fall of his senior year of high school, after a long and drawn out fight with cancer. One of the few bright spots that year was when he received his acceptance letter from the University of Notre Dame.

“It felt like all my hard work had paid off when I got the acceptance letter,” he said. “I could actually see myself going there, and I know my mom would have been so proud that I’d gotten in.”

Once the euphoria of getting into his dream school wore off, Yanagi got hard to work at his next project: finding the funds to pay for his tuition and housing. He applied for hundreds of scholarships, bookmarking them on his computer and noting the month each application was due. In this fashion, he has been able to secure enough funds to pay for about 60 to 70 percent of his college expenses.

“I keep applying for scholarships and hopefully I’ll be able to get 100 percent paid with just scholarship money,” Yanagi said. “That is my goal.”

Perhaps his biggest scholarship coup came when he received notice that he was a semi-finalist in Scholarship America’s Dream Award, and was invited to appear on Katie Couric’s talk show in New York this past May. He walked away with a selfie cell phone photo of himself and Katie Couric, plus a generous $15,000 scholarship.

A New Family

At Notre Dame, he’s proven to be a top student, making the Dean’s List and becoming involved in numerous campus organizations, including the Wall Street Club, the Investment Club, the Student International Business Council and the Building Bridges Mentoring Program. Some of his favorite moments at school have been traveling to New York City to make a presentation for Morgan Stanley, creating stock pitches in the investment club, and, of course, attending football games. He’s also found the time to do community service while at school, most recently helping organize a bone marrow donor drive.

Yanagi’s work ethic and drive have impressed the staff and faculty at Notre Dame, including his advisor Zhi Da, an associate professor of finance, who calls him “an unassumingly bright and driven young person.” When he first met him freshman year, Yanagi did not share any information about his challenging background and home life, Da said.

“His privacy is part of his character; his premature shouldering of burdens is the source of his modesty and thoughtfulness,” Da said. “Because of his background, Takashi meets people on entirely adult terms.”

Notre Dame’s close-knit community has turned out to be the perfect fit for Yanagi as he struggled to move past the passing of his mother and look to the future, said Da, who has taken Yanagi out to dinner several times over the years. “The family feel environment at Notre Dame is truly nurturing to Takashi, and he has flourished,” Da said.

Yanagi is already starting to think about life beyond Notre Dame’s bucolic campus. He interned for a hedge fund in New York City this summer, and hopes to eventually become an investment banker, doing work in the biotechnology sector. He thinks about his mother often, and likes to imagine that she’d be proud of the path that he’s carving out for himself.

“Sometimes the memories pop back up and it makes me tear up because they are just powerful moments,” he said. “The feelings and emotions are there, but they help me stay grounded and pursuing the path I’m on." 


Originally published by Alison Damast at bizmagazine.nd.edu in Fall 2014.