On Campus: Life in full bloom for Japanese student at MATC

Makiko Omori speaks fluent English sprinkled with Italian and Japanese. She grew up in Tokyo and trained there as a French pastry chef after high school. She recently studied linguistics for three years in Venice.

The 27-year-old will graduate from Madison Area Technical College this spring and will start work on her bachelor’s degree at UW-Madison in the fall. She wants to be a registered dietitian. Her mother and father died in recent years, both of cancer, fueling a desire in Omori to help people to better health and longer lives through the daily medicine of food.

Love brought Omori to Madison. Three years ago this week, she was home in Tokyo on a visit from Italy. An earthquake and tsunami rocked eastern Japan. She spent 10 days volunteering with disaster relief in the northeast Japanese city of Ishinomaki.

There she met another volunteer who was living and working in Japan at the time, Joel Thomas of Berlin, Wis. “We got along so we kept in touch,” she said.

The courtship led to a visit with Thomas to his home state. “I kind of fell in love with Madison,” Omori said. They decided to move here together.

Omori knew she wanted to go into dietetics at UW-Madison. But she needed general education courses. She enrolled at MATC in fall 2012. She got involved outside the classroom as a student senator, in the international office and as a campus officer for Phi Beta Kappa, the national academic honors society.

She learned of an annual New Century scholarship given by Phi Beta Kappa. The competition is steep. Just one community college winner is chosen in each state, chosen from more than 1,700 students nominated nationally. They’re judged on grades, leadership and how they’ve extended their intellectual pursuits outside the classroom.

Recently, Omori learned she won the scholarship, sponsored by Coca-Cola, for Wisconsin. Beyond the $2,000 award, it gives her the chance to go to Washington, D.C., to accept the honor in early April. Her thoughts turned to cherry blossoms.

Growing up in Tokyo, she loved the annual two-week festival of color. “Everything is pink,” she said. “It’s very precious.”

The blossom also happens every spring in the nation’s capital, a gift from the Japanese government. This year, peak bloom is estimated to be April 8-12. Omori accepts her honor April 8.  “I really miss those trees,” she said. “I’m excited to see them again.”

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