Campus Life News

Emily Yamada Tepfenhart, 23, grew up amongst the rich, wide-open fields on the island of Hokkaido, where she lived a quiet and secure life on her family's dairy farm.  Living on the northernmost island of Japan allowed her to have a unique childhood compared to the country's many other residents, who live in cities.

For starters, her elementary school experience was quaint.  There were 18 students from grades 1 - 6, and there were only four in her grade.  The intimate setting of her school created an environment of fruitful experiences. 

Emily reflected on her childhood experience, “It was awesome.  I  was able to run around the farm or hang out with my friends.  I would have to be driven to a friend’s house, which would be a 20-minute drive.  In elementary school I was able to do cool things.  We would grow indigo dye plants, have festivals and use indigo dye, which is a Japanese artistry.  Also, we would have a talent show for harvest festival.  Here we would do the lion dance, where a hunter defeats a lion.” 

Her early years were unique compared to her classmates.  Her mother is American and her father is Japanese.  They met in the United States when Emily’s father came to Nebraska to attend college and enroll in its two-year farming program.

“Racism was never an issue in school.  Everyone knew my parents and everyone knew my family.  I only remember one time in a grocery store a little kid said, ‘Oh, look a foreigner.’”

Emily did not endure any blatant racism.  Although, her classmates did make accusations towards her. 

“They would say to me, ‘English must be super easy for you,’” she explained.

Although, she blew off those assumptions, she did try her best to learn English.  Her upbringing did allow her to be submerged in the language.

While English was spoken quite often at home, Emily did live in a typical Japanese house with her parents, younger sister and paternal grandparents.  Inside the house, she practiced both Buddhism and Shinto, and had a shrine in the living room like many other Japanese families.  The shrine is used as a site where family members would give thanks to ancestors in the past and pray to the gods.  

Many Americans would be shocked to know that although many Japanese do not consider themselves to be Christian, they do partake in their own festivities for Christmas.  There would not be a gift exchange, but they would eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. 

“In Japan, we celebrate with getting Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Christmas cake, which always must be Santa-themed,” Emily explained with much enthusiasm.

She was unsure how the Japanese became so obsessed with eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas.  She did express that whomever did come up with this idea created a great marketing sensation, because it’s now considered a national tradition. 

Once Emily completed 8th grade, she had to apply for high school.  When she was 16 years old, she had to move out of her parents’ home and be enrolled in a high school program. 

She explained, “Going to high school in Japan is like applying for college here.  You can take an entrance exam, which is something you study for ahead of time. You can take advanced or regular programs in all subjects in high school.”

Emily decided to study English at a private Protestant affiliated high school in Sapporo, which is 3-1/2 hours away from home.  There was a mandatory exchange program and she chose to live in the United State for one year. Little did Emily know when her plane landed in Syracuse that she would make Central New York her home. 

In 2013, at the age of 17 she enrolled at Oswego High School.  Her journey did not start as she anticipated, her host parent made her first few months an unpleasant experience.  Shortly thereafter, her living situation was corrected. The school’s exchange student coordinator and her household became Emily’s new host family.  The new living arrangements turned out to be a great experience and she was able to focus on school. 

While at Oswego High, she participated in JV cheerleading, track/field, women’s choir, was the pianist for jazz band, and was involved in community theatre:  Oswego Players and CNY Art Center.  After spending several seasons in the Port City, she returned home in 2014.

She reported back to her high school in Japan and graduated in February 2015.  Almost instantly, Emily applied to SUNY Oswego.  Previously in the summer of 2014, she and her mother traveled throughout the United States visiting other universities.  Her heart led her back to Oswego.  She liked SUNY Oswego, because she was comfortable with the city and knew her surroundings.

In August of 2015, she started her college career at SUNY Oswego majoring in global and international studies and, eventually, added a major in political science and a minor in sustainability studies. She returned to her host family and lived at their home, while she attended classes.  She would bicycle to her job at the former Tim Hortons fast-food restaurant.  Little did she know when she was working there that her life was going to change significantly in the near future. 

“I met David at Tim’s Horton.  We both worked there.  I did not like him at first, I thought he partied a lot.” Emily said promptly.

She eventually warmed up to David and they started dating in September 2015.  After several years, the romance was still blooming and David decided to enlist in the US Army.  He officially joined in Spring 2018 and the two of them were married locally in June.

While Emily was pursuing her undergraduate degree, David became injured in a basic training exercise.  His dream aspirations were halted and a new course of action was to take place.  With a keen sense to serve his community, he had already received an associate’s degree in criminal justice and was now turning his attention to acquiring his bachelor’s degree.  His desire is to work for law enforcement and emergency management.

Emily graduated in May 2019 from SUNY Oswego and quickly enrolled in the university’s master’s degree program in human computer interaction.  When she first arrived to college, her career goal was to travel to other countries, become a translator or work for the United Nations.  

Since then, her ambition has totally changed.  Her focus is on development and design of educational software and an on-line tool for higher education.  Also, create a software that students and professors would find easy to use.

“I saw this need when David enrolled in classes.  It takes a student one-hour to figure out how something works.  I want to create a better way to organize and navigate a system. There needs to be a straight forward application that performs better,” stated Emily. 

Currently, Emily is working on campus as a graduate assistant at Mary Walker Health Center.  She works specifically with the social media outreach alongside graphic designer, Nykky Bivens, and enjoys every minute of it. 

While as an undergraduate student she worked in the mailroom and the skate shop for the Department of Campus Life. Her work as a skate guard seemed to be a natural fit.  The harsh winters on the island of Hokkaido cause people to remain active during the long months.  Emily learned to speed skate in elementary school and in middle school she was introduced to ice hockey.  

Emily has lived in Oswego for approximately five consecutive years and has no intentions on leaving the United States or returning to Japan.  She is making a home with her husband while they both pursue their career paths. 

Emily expressed, “Oswego is my second home at this point and the summers are gorgeous.  I plan to stay in the United States to pursue my career, I am married to someone who is from here and there a lot of places I would like to visit in the United States, since I am here.”