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Michael Kenji (Maka) Takahara

Health Education Specialist | Department of Health & Wellness (UCSB)

Katherine Harvey Fellows Alumni

If you wonder if positivity is contagious, Michael Kenji (Maka) Takahara’s laugh might make you a believer. While his career focuses on practicing mental health and wellness for his students, “Mondays with Maka” on the UCSB Student Affairs YouTube channel has been a hit with his colleagues and students around campus. 

As a Health Education Specialist, “I try to help people develop strong positive relationships and find meaning in their lives. I define ‘meaning’ as using your strengths and your talents to contribute to something bigger than yourself.” 

Connectedness is a frequent theme in Maka’s worldview, and a greater challenge during the pandemic. “The generation entering college right now is more anxious and depressed than any prior generation. They often feel like they are the problem; that if they just had more self-discipline, worked harder, or didn’t give in to distraction, then they wouldn’t feel so bad. This pathological critic in their own head telling them they’re not good enough drains their energy and makes their struggle harder. The pandemic makes it worse for everybody. It cuts off their routines for social support.” 

Maka helps students develop self-compassion, to recognize, “I’m not alone, it’s not going to last forever, and it may help me be more compassionate to someone else who is suffering. I can learn from this experience and I can start again.” 

Maka’s empathy has been learned through experience. Working at a camp for people with disabilities, including those with Cerebral Palsy, he learned to communicate through word boards and experienced a transformative epiphany: “People are people. I dropped my preconceptions, and I realized that giving to others feeds my soul.” 

Maka’s career started at UCSB through a connection with a friend, it’s exactly the sort of “everything is connected” moment that Maka refuses to take for granted: “Everything I’ve become is because of the people I have met.” 


“I know what it’s like to struggle and I know what it’s like to be supported. I want to be that person in support.” 


Thriving in his role, however, wasn’t automatic. “Early in my job, I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, laughing. Supervisor Sabina White demoted Maka and supported him for 19 years in growing his career. “That was a tremendous gift. When I see someone struggling, I remember how I suffered, and Sabina was there to help me overcome that. As someone who’s been at the university for 30 years, I know what it’s like to struggle and I know what it’s like to be supported, and I want to be that person in support.” 

Maka’s enthusiasm for learning informs his approach to teaching. “I want my interns to believe in our mission to help people thrive. I want to develop their skills that contribute to that mission and give them opportunities to use those skills. I want them to learn something more, because in an internship one should leave with transferable skills and have fun.” 

To Maka’s surprise a colleague of Maka’s asked him to join the board of the Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (APIA). The experience awoke his “Asian-ness.” Growing up in Monterey Park, the first Asian suburb in the US, Maka never knew a white person. “I was aware of my heritage, but I didn’t understand what it meant to be a ‘model minority,’ and how that was used against black people. I learned so much.” 

In a recent collaboration with Leading From Within, Maka led a session on Building Your Self-Care Toolkit During Covid. An alum of the Katherine Harvey Fellowship, Maka values his kindred spirits. “The relationships have been fantastic. I’ve learned a lot about our community from this cohort, not as an activist, but as a learner. I’m learning a lot about the good people in our community, and it makes me hopeful.” 

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