Maya Nishikawa and daughter Hana. (Photo by Mary Tan)
By MARY TAN
AAP staff writer
For almost 20 years, Maya Nishikawa dedicated her life to chasing criminals, fire trucks and tornados all under deadline pressure. Now, she runs after children, cleans up messy spills and does everything possible to make kids with special needs thrive.
Nishikawa gave up the bright lights of reporting at WCCO-TV last fall, to pursue a career as a special education early childhood teacher. She recently landed her first job as a teacher at the Arbor View Early Childhood Center in Maple Grove, part of the Osseo 279 School District.
Her desire to make a life change started with the birth of her daughter, Mieko, who passed away in 2008. Mieko was born with a severe genetic disorder called Trisomy 18, which caused many physical and developmental challenges. Usually, the expectations are not positive for children with the disorder and parents are prepared for the worst.
“Doctors told me before she was born she would never walk and may not live past one year. But my husband and I did everything to give her the best life possible,” said Nishikawa. “Mieko lived until she was four years old and surprised her doctors by being able to walk with a walker. We learned a sense of compassion we had never experienced before because of our little girl.”
During this time, the Saint Paul couple, Maya, a part time at WCCO-TV reporter, and her husband, Shawn Johnson, a full-time as an English teacher at Osseo High School, dealt with Mieko’s emergencies and never slept more than a few hours every night.
Mieko needed round-the-clock care, filled with medical procedures and dozens of medications. She faced many hospitalizations in the intensive care unit at the Children’s Hospitals in Saint Paul and Minneapolis.
After Mieko passed away in 2008, Nishikawa and her husband fell into a time of great sadness. They both continued working, but the long-time journalist didn’t feel the same about her reporting career. She started thinking about making a change.
“I felt like I had done everything I wanted to do in television, I felt this intense need to give back in a more meaningful way. I had so much help from home healthcare workers and special education teachers who were wonderful with helping us deal with Mieko’s disabilities.”
It didn’t take long for Nishikawa to decide that a career in early childhood special education was the right career path for her. After giving birth to her second child, Hana, Nishikawa enrolled at the University of St. Thomas to pursue a Masters of Education degree in early childhood education. She worked part-time at WCCO-TV on the weekends and attended classes during the week.
Nishikawa admits teaching has been overwhelming and difficult at times. She faced reality during her time as a student teacher.
“As a reporter, you cover a story and then leave,” she said. “You often never see the interviewees again and you move on. As a special education teacher, I see the same children and their families every week. I see their challenges and difficulties up close. I get to have a personal connection. It can be heartbreaking when you see a child struggle and rewarding when they succeed. I work with children of all economic backgrounds. No two families are the same.”
Nishikawa is surprised there are very few Asian Americans in the special education field and very few minorities in general. She hopes her story will inspire more Asian Americans in Minnesota to pursue a teaching career.
“Minnesota’s demographic is changing. Minority groups are thriving and growing in the state,” she said. “Students need teachers who look like them, speak their languages, and understand their cultures. There are children of all ethnicities that have special needs and often times minority families really connect with you because they feel you are one of them.”
Now that she is again a working mom, spending the summer with her daughter Hana, 2, Nishikawa said she feels blessed to have had both a special needs and a healthy child because she has learned so much from both types of parenting. She said her students will be of all races, ethnicities and economic incomes and that is excited to make a difference, one child at a time.