Kyla Mitsunaga sat crossed legged on her navy blue bed spread as she methodically brushed her very thick, very straight, nearly waist length jet-black hair. I sat directly across from her on my striped comforter, flipping restlessly through my big book of CD’s. Going about our separate business, both of us were acutely aware of the invisible line, carefully drawn down the center of the room. The line that would determine the only personal space we could claim as our own for the next nine months of our lives.
Kyla had just arrived on the grounds of CATE, our Southern California boarding school, from her home in Hong Kong, and from what I could tell was one of those super studious, hyper-organized, Asian girls that I’d never bothered to get to know.
I, on the other hand, thought, I was cool. After all, I knew things. Important things, like what it was like to kiss a boy, drive a car, and who Led Zeppelin was, and just incase anyone doubted just how cool really I was, I had a Houses of the Holy poster pinned above my bed to prove it. Oh brother.
What neither of us could foresee on that awkward, first night together was that we would be extremely compatible, and amid the accolades and angst, trials and tribulations of freshman year, our unlikely friendship would become a treasured respite from the outside world. In the confines of our dorm room, we shared our secrets and dreams, our crushes and our fears. We’d laugh ourselves to tears by making fun of each other’s idiosyncrasies, fire each other up with pep talks, and comfort each other when the sometimes unpleasant, teenage realities took hold. I watched as Kyla blossomed from shy and a little unsure of herself into a confident, talented, and strikingly beautiful girl who was friendly with everyone. Hence my nickname (which still stands today) for her – Madame Butterfly – was created! Our bond grew so strong that the following year we surprised everyone, including ourselves, by electing to be roomies again; it was something so rare, that we were the only girls in our class to do so.
From where I sit today, I recognize that my relationship with Kyla was not just one of the dearest friendships I created during those formative years; she was actually one of my greatest teachers and she still is. Sure, she helped me with my math homework – she’s ridiculously smart, although she’d never tell you that because she’s even more humble – but I’m not talking about that kind of teaching. Most of the things I’ve learned from Kyla, I’m sure she had no idea she was teaching me at all.
I’ve learned about the invisible gifts you receive when you treat everyone with the same gentle kindness; that big dreams can be achieved with a series of small dedicated steps; and to never underestimate the power a catchy British pop-song has to make everything better.
These days, Kyla is leading by example as she teaches hundreds of young minds at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea each year, where she knows every student by name. Using principles she’s gained from her own diverse journey – backpacking to the far corners of the globe, volunteering for the Polaris Project in an effort to stop human trafficking, and earning a Master’s degree from Harvard (where she TA-ed her first University level class, only to be honored with what would be the first of many teacher of the year awards!) – Kyla is inspiring her students to believe in themselves by transforming the classroom experience into a collaborative experience – a revolutionary concept amongst her contemporaries. (Watch her TED video at the bottom of the page).
Kyla Mitsunaga is a woman who knows that life is not a destination, but a wild and rich journey to be savored. It’s Kyla’s disarming candor, and lovable quirkiness, that resonates with her students, friends and everyone who has the pleasure of knowing her. Now that’s WOW!
Name: Kyla Mitsunaga
Hometown: Hong Kong
Current city of residence: Seoul, South Korea
Ordinary Magic: If you were at a cocktail party and were asked to explain what you do in three sentences or less, what would you say?
KM: I am an edumacator.
Ordinary Magic: What inspired you to head in that direction?
KM: The extraordinary mentors/teachers I have had in my life and just wanting to give back. I think it took me a long time to figure it out, but I finally figured out I am a natural-born teacher.
Ordinary Magic: What is your accomplishment that you are most proud of to date?
KM: It is something that happens on an on-going basis: that light bulb moment when a student grasps something for the first time.
Ordinary Magic: What has the biggest turning point been in your life so far?
KM: Every day there is a different turning point–big or small. I learn so much from my students, from others around me, and try to be present as much as possible.
Ordinary Magic: What is your greatest passion?
Ordinary Magic: What was the last book you read?
KM: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden.
Ordinary Magic: What is your personal philosophy?
KM: What I tell my students: Be confident in who you are so others will have confidence in you. What I tell myself: What matters is not what you have done, but what you are doing. My teaching philosophy: Teach WITH and not AT.
Ordinary Magic: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
KM: A really good friend from uni tells me this all the time: “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Ordinary Magic: If you could be anywhere in the world right now doing anything, what would it be?
KM: Exactly what I am doing.
Ordinary Magic: What do you have gratitude for in this moment?
KM: Being able to do what I am doing and loving what I am doing. Also, the amazing people in my life who have supported and encouraged me along the way.
Ordinary Magic: Do you have a Life Motto?
KM: Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”