If you quit, Yasuko Walcott says, you won’t survive as a first-generation immigrant.
Walcott emigrated from Japan in 1969 to live in New Mexico with Bill, the American husband she married in Japan.
“First-generation immigrants have so many different kinds of problems, but you still have to keep going to prove that you’re an acceptable citizen,” she said.
Walcott had lived in America from 1962 to 1966 while studying at San Francisco State University. She returned home after graduation but had no success in finding a job in her field.
“Japanese society wasn’t ready for educated women,” she said. “I was only 30 years too early.”
Even with an American college education, she had a hard time adjusting to the American lifestyle when she returned to the U.S.
Walcott overcame those challenges to become an educator, teaching Japanese at the high school and college levels.
It was that same determination that allowed the Mount Airy resident, now 70, to accomplish another goal recently.
In August, she successfully defended her dissertation to the faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and will be awarded a doctorate in philosophy 11 years after beginning the program.
She is slated to graduate today with about 150 other students. Walcott is the oldest UMBC graduate to earn her Ph.D. this year, according to Elyse Ashburn, UMBC director of communications. Ashburn said the university does not track graduates’ ages, which makes it hard to determine if Walcott is the oldest to ever complete a doctorate.
While most graduate students finish in five to seven years, Walcott juggled a cancer diagnosis and a full-time teaching load at UMBC as she completed her degree.
“I’m very grateful, as much as I’m grateful to my family, but also to school because they never threw me out,” Walcott said, laughing, during an interview in her Mount Airy home.
After being diagnosed in March 2006 with colon cancer, she has been in and out of the hospital. Her most recent stay was in September 2010.
A Japanese professor at UMBC since 1994, Walcott taught three four-credit courses each semester during her studies.
“Students come first before I study my own,” she said. “That made it even harder.”
Walcott has also taught at Montgomery College, Montgomery County Public Schools and Loyola College.
Despite being a teacher, Walcott said the early course work was so difficult, she cried nearly every day for the first two years while earning her doctorate.
“It was too difficult and so demanding,” she said.
It took her five years to finish the course work before she even started her dissertation.
Walcott’s 490-page dissertation was on a familiar subject: “Experiences of Japanese women who married American military personnel and emigrated to the United States between 1945 and 1965.”
Walcott interviewed six women in Washington and Virginia, asking them to describe their lives in Japan and how they changed since moving to America.
She found that they all share characteristics of being independent, strong, intelligent, flexible and full of common sense.
“They are very strong because so many of them had to cope with lots of problems by themselves because husbands, soldiers — they may be gone for months at a time,” she said.
Some of the women were disconnected from their family or didn’t have the money to travel back to Japan while their husband was gone, Walcott said.
“Their families just cut them off because they married Americans — the enemy,” she said.
Many of the women moved to the U.S. with very little knowledge of English, she said.
Another challenge for Walcott while writing her dissertation: English is her second language.
“I may sit there half a day and write only one line,” she said.
During her research, Walcott interviewed the women in Japanese, and then translated the interviews word by word to English before she wrote.
After taking 11 years to complete her doctorate, Walcott said she has no plans to continue her education.
Her son’s family planned to travel from Oregon and her daughter planned to travel from Tokyo to attend the diploma ceremony.
It’s one of the few times her entire family will be together.
“That itself means a lot,” she said. “Especially for our grandchildren to show them your grandmom could do it. Hopefully that will inspire them.”