Aug 13, 2020

First generation graduate stories

James Walton never expected to become a Ph.D. In fact, he never expected to be the first in his family to go to college.

Walton, Fresno State’s English department chair, grew up impoverished in Canton, Ohio, with a stepfather who expected him to be self-sufficient.

“I don’t recall one time in high school that we received lunch money or had a lunch to take to school,” Walton said.

What is Walton’s advice to students looking to be the first college graduate in their families?

“Motivation is really important,” he said. “If you’re motivated there are so many ways of getting through. There are those angels out there and financial aid and other ways.”
For Walton, that person was Dr. Joseph Nozaki.

After graduating high school early at age 16 with few options, Walton joined the Navy and prepared for a possible deployment to Vietnam. Two weeks before shipping out, he participated in a neighboring church’s play.

At the church, Nozaki, at the time a complete stranger, asked Walton about school; he told Nozaki he had graduated high school and had no plans for college.

A week later, Nozaki called Walton at his home, saying that the young man had been on his mind.

Nozaki was alarmed to discover that he had joined the Navy. Another week passed, and Walton received another phone call from Nozaki, this time telling him that he’d been accepted to Nozaki’s alma mater, Andrews University in Michigan.

An hour later, Walton and Nozaki were on their way to Michigan.

Walton only saw Nozaki once after that night. He worked his way through college, sometimes living only on government-surplus peanut butter.

Without money to buy all the books he needed, he passed classes by asking questions and taking copious notes.

Eventually he transferred to Kent State University in order to lighten his financial load, and graduated with a degree in English.

Walton taught at the high school he graduated from for three years, and then taught English at Mount Union College.

He followed Nozaki’s example of generosity, allowing students to live in his house on campus free of charge.

“One guy’s job was to empty the waste can,” he said. “That was his full assignment.”

After 20 years at Mount Union College, Walton took a position at Fresno State. All the while, he attempted to send letters to Nozaki, all of which were eventually returned.

Six years ago, Walton told the story of Nozaki while speaking at a graduation ceremony at Fresno Asian and Community Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Miraculously, Watson discovered that Nozaki had founded the very church where he had just given his speech.

A meeting was set up between the two men for the following Monday.

“I was just overwhelmed,” Walton said. “I couldn’t believe it because I had been searching for him all those years and given up on ever finding him. My wife said I didn’t sleep all weekend.”

Nozaki, a practicing surgeon and devout Christian, told Walton that it was the Lord who prompted him to help a stranger go to college.

It was only one of many generous acts that Nozaki has performed throughout his life.

Others include founding schools and hospitals as a missionary in Asia, buying the church in Fresno and seeing patients free of charge.

“He’s probably the most Christian-like person I’ve ever met. That’s just the way he thinks: how can I assist this person?” Walton said. “His whole life has been that way.”

Today, Walton and Nozaki are both members of the church that reunited them and see each other on a regular basis. At 80, Nozaki continues to assist people in need the way he assisted Walton.

Walton is no longer the only college graduate in his family.

His daughter graduated from Berkeley and is attending graduate school at Loma Linda University in Southern California.

For more information:

Adding a college degree to the Family Tree
Faculty and staff at Fresno State reach out

The first generation stories are part of a project that encourages Fresno State faculty to share their stories of being first generation college graduates.

For more information and inspirational stories, check out

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