Overcoming challenges is nothing new for Ikumi Kobayashi (’15), who traveled more than 6,000 miles from her hometown of Ibaraki, Japan, to study at Abilene Christian University. She grew up with a profound hearing loss in both ears and relies on lip-reading as well as hearing aids to help her communicate. She also faced the challenge of taking college courses in English, rather than her native Japanese.
Nevertheless, she has earned not one, but two college degrees and now works at Google, one of the world’s largest companies and most-recognized brands. As a search optimization specialist, she supports large Japanese companies in the entertainment industry in running and optimizing their Google search ads.
Kobayashi graduated from ACU in 2015 with a B.S. in communication and went on to earn an M.A. in international culture and communication studies in 2018 from Waseda University in Tokyo, where she now resides. In this Q&A, she talks about the challenges she has faced as well as the opportunities she found at ACU and beyond.
Why did you decide to come to ACU for your undergraduate work? How did you hear about the university?
ACU has a partnership with Ibaraki Christian High School, where I attended. Originally, I was planning to go to a university in Japan, but during the application process I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn in English, hoping to have a wide range of opportunities in the future as a Japanese woman with a hearing disability. That was when my teacher recommended I consider going to ACU. I was told there are many alumni who were successful building their careers after graduation. As an international student, having reliable communities was very important, so I made my decision to study at ACU.
How did you obtain your job with Google?
I struggled during my job hunt in Japan because most of the companies I applied to had limited job postings for people with disabilities, and the benefits were often unequal compared to people without a disability. I struggled to find a company I really wanted to work for. Google was the best company I could think of. I first googled for the job postings and applied to an internship opportunity that was an up-skilling program for early career employees with disabilities. However, my recruiter suggested I apply for a full-time position instead of the internship program, so I gave it a try. My recruiter was very supportive throughout the process and made sure I had all the accommodations necessary during the interviews, so I was able to communicate without having to worry about my hearing disability.
What does your job entail? What is a typical day for you?
On a typical day I check my clients’ Google Ads accounts to monitor if their ads are running correctly, and find the things we can optimize for better performance. I meet with my internal teams and external clients over video calls to discuss them on a daily basis. After our Google Tokyo office shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, I have been working remotely in my apartment. I really miss meeting my teammates and friends in the office, but I try to keep myself energized by proactively setting up video meetings with them as often as possible. Conversations with Googlers (Google employees) always help me to maximize my productivity.
What is your favorite part of your job? What is most challenging?
My favorite part is definitely that I can be a part of many exciting projects at Google, and I can give my feedback directly to improve products. My core job is to support clients on Google Ads, but as one of a few Googlers with hearing disability, I feel responsible to speak up to give feedback and provide ideas to improve whenever I have a chance. Accessibility is now one of the top priorities at Google, but inside the company I feel we need more people from different backgrounds to develop great products. Personally, I hope we will have more Googlers with knowledge about hearing disability in the near future.
What is it like working for such a well-known company?
I’m surrounded by extremely smart and kind people, and I enjoy that I can be among them. Google’s mission statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” There are many different teams at Google from engineers to sellers, etc., but we all have the same mission to work hard every day to provide the best experience for our users. I hope to serve more users around the world, and help optimize people’s lives using my knowledge.
What was your favorite thing about being a student at ACU?
Being at ACU, I was able to meet so many lifelong friends and people from all over the world with diverse backgrounds. Through the activities with the International Students’ Association, I made new friends from different countries who supported each other and many local friends who showed interest in learning about our cultures. One of the best activities was Ethnos (an annual international showcase). I had the great opportunity to learn about different cultures through fun performances representing different countries, and also I was able to introduce cultures from Japan.
In what ways do you feel ACU prepared you academically for your future?
As a non-native English speaker, one of the biggest challenges was learning in class in English. Before starting my freshman year, ACU provided me with ESL classes over the summer break. It helped me to adjust myself to a new environment and a new language.
In my junior and senior year I majored in communication, because I loved to listen to people’s speech, but as a hard-of-hearing person, communicating and speaking up was difficult for me.
I decided to major in communication even with my disability because I wanted to be heard. Hearing loss is invisible, so many people with hearing disabilities struggle not being able to communicate with people around them. I think it’s important for people with hearing disabilities to acquire public speaking skills. My professors supported me in being able to do professional public speeches, and that skill is now essential for my job at Google.
What was the ACU community like for a person with a disability? How was your college experience different because of your hearing loss?
My professors and friends were supportive. In class, I used an FM microphone that pairs with my hearing aids. I asked the professors and my classmates to use the microphone when they spoke in class so I could understand. As lectures are usually interactive with many discussions, it was difficult to pass around one microphone, but there were always friends who helped me by sharing notes and repeating the words for me.
When I have a conversation, I rely heavily on lip reading. I use hearing aids in both ears, but as I have profound sensorineural hearing loss, I cannot understand just by the sound from my hearing aids; I cannot even hear my own voice. Coming to the U.S., I needed to learn to read lips in English. At ACU, I was learning both English and English lip reading. It was extremely challenging, but I’m proud of myself for proving that hard work pays off.
What was your experience at ACU as an international student? What were the greatest challenges?
As an international student who uses English as a second language, the greatest challenge was everyday assignments! I stayed at the library until 10 p.m. almost every night. It took more time for me to complete assignments compared to my classmates, and I remember it was really difficult to motivate myself, but thanks to my support from professors and my friends I was able to successfully complete the work. It was a challenge, but it was worth it!
What advice would you give to someone about overcoming obstacles in life?
There are no challenges you cannot overcome, but most of the time it’s not achievable fighting alone. I hope ACU students find it safe to talk about their challenges with family, friends or even professors, and seek advice. If your challenge comes from working too hard, it might be a great idea to step back and rethink if the goal you are trying to achieve is worth the effort. Goals can change every day, so my advice is to have faith in yourself and do the things you believe to be right.
– Robin Saylor
Oct. 1, 2021