Leader, mentor, activist and survivor: Yuna Watanabe

After graduating this semester with a communications degree, Orange Coast College student Yuna Watanabe, 19, is looking towards the future. 

While the original plan was for Watanabe to transfer to a university, that step has been put on hold. 

“Lately my parents have been going through a rough patch, so I decided to be completely financially independent,” Watanabe said.

To cover her tuition, Watanabe took out a loan, so instead of going to university, she will be working full time and intends to go back to school once it is paid off.

“I plan to pursue marketing – maybe for a company that works with non-profit organizations,” Watanabe said. 

She is also considering getting her masters in counseling to become a therapist. “I am still trying to figure out what is best for me,” Watanabe said. 

But no matter what she does, Watanabe knows she wants to assist people. 

Helping people isn’t new for Watanabe. At OCC, Watanabe began her time in student government as an inter-club council member and after one semester, she was elected as inter-club council’s president. This semester, Watanabe is serving as a member of the student senate. 

In Hong Kong, Watanabe was the president of her high school’s Inclusive Club, whose mission was to bring social justice issues to the student body. Watanabe and the Inclusive Club also worked closely with Pink Alliance, a non-profit LGBT+ organization that is powered by volunteers and provides mental health resources to the community. 

Before leaving for America and OCC, Watanabe was offered an internship with Pink Alliance as their social media handler. But since she couldn’t fill the role, Watanabe passed the opportunity to her junior mentor. 

Social media was, and continues to be, a great platform for Watanabe. During the Hong Kong protests in 2019, Watanabe utilized social media as a way to raise awareness and spread information to people. “I was very involved on social media helping other students get information although they may not be able to go to protests,” Watanabe said. 

Thinking back, Watanabe wishes she could have done more but during this time her mental health wasn't in the best state. 

During her freshman year of high school, Watanabe was sexually assaulted by her best male friend at the time. 

“We had a great relationship. I trusted him,” Watanabe said.

To heal from this experience, Watanabe has been in therapy for three years. The first two in Hong Kong and one at OCC’s Health Center. But therapy wasn’t always considered an option by her. 

“Back then I didn’t trust a therapist,” Watanabe said. “If you need to fix your mental state, then just go to a psychiatrist. Take medication. This was the attitude I had at that stage.”

However, after missing out on school for two weeks, maintaining a poor diet, and feeling dissociated from those around her, Watanabe realized that this wasn’t something she could work through on her own. “Whenever I would hear the male friend’s voice, I would feel like I was in the room again,” Watanabe said. 

After going to see a psychiatrist, Watanabe was prescribed medication that she developed a dependency on. “I would have anxiety attacks if I couldn’t see my medication or it wasn’t in my reach,” Watanabe said.

Watanabe went to her school counselor and was recommended to a therapist. It took two tries to find the right therapist, but when Watanabe did, she felt like she was on the right track. “[The therapist] helped me process it a little better. I didn’t want to talk about [the assault] then, but she gave me options on how to move forward,” Watanabe said. 

“[I learned that] in order to process and move forward with your life, is to sit with your emotions and think on why you feel a certain way. That is the most important part of human life,” Watanabe said. 

Mental health has a stigma in Hong Kong, which led to Watanabe being more vocal about mental health issues. “I was more active in Hong Kong, especially because there was a taboo about seeing a therapist and admitting you have depression and anxiety,” Watanabe said. 

“In America, it is different so I focused my energy on how to help international students who are struggling,” Watanabe said. 

When Watanabe comes across international students on OCC’s Facebook page, she will reach out and ask students if they would like to join a WhatsApp group chat that was created for support. “When ICE sent out a statement regarding international students at the beginning of the pandemic, that is when this group chat came to life,” Watanabe said. 

With a lot of friends and family on social media, the most asked question she gets these days is race and how bad racism is in America. “There are a lot of hate crime cases here in America. My parents are worried,” Watanabe said. 

“I remember a lady down near my apartment who was walking her dog. I love animals so I approached her because the dog was really curious, wanted to sniff me, and wanted to play with me. When the dog came over to me the lady … yanked the dog and said, ‘this is not your dinner’ and she walked away,” Watanabe said. 

After posting a video on her social media about the encounter, Watanabe got a lot of support from friends. “It proves that not every American is as racist as people think … it is about how understanding other people are,” Watanabe said. 

With that being said, what motivates Watanabe is being able to help international students in America who have faced injustice. She helps by interning at OCC’s International Education Center and working at the Global Engagement Center. Interning with IEC until last semester, Watanabe mentored students and taught them everything she knows. 

“When someone mentors me… it shows that they are dedicated and their kindness is clearly being seen. I want to pay that forward,” Watanabe said.

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