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Student from Japan Lives Lifelong Dream at BYU

May 2016

Dan Ito

Life parked a few hefty obstacles between the Ito brothers and their dream of studying in the United States: both had spinal muscular atrophy and weren’t able to live on their own, their family had no money for travel from Japan, and neither spoke English. But Tatsu and Dan Ito have always tackled obstacles head-on, transforming challenges gracefully into markers of faith.

Paving a Path to the United States

Tatsu and Dan are the sixth and seventh children born to Hidetoshi and Ikuko Ito - and the third and fourth to suffer from spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that weakens and damages muscles and worsens over time. The genetic disorder, which has no cure and is eventually fatal, left both brothers without the use of their arms and legs. 

After the death of their older brother Hidenori, Dan says they were comforted by the understanding that “he was called to serve in heaven” and that “he really understood his own disability and his own purpose in life.”

When their parents went to close Hidenori’s bank account, they were shocked to find that he had saved a considerable amount of money from working an online job. “We had no idea how much he was paid because he never told us,” Dan says. Hidenori had left enough money to buy tickets for Dan, Tatsu, and their mother to travel to the United States and to pay their rent for several months. “That was a very surprising moment, and we started to understand that he had been working for us,” Dan says.

Dan Ito with a group of fellow students

Knowing very little English, Tatsu and Dan applied to study at BYU’s English Language Center (ELC), which provides high-quality English instruction for English-language learners. The ELC operates in the College of Humanities with support from the Division of Continuing Education.

James Hartshorn, program coordinator of the ELC, recalls receiving the Ito brothers’ applications: “We had never worked with anyone quite like them before,” he says. But with help from the accessibility office on campus, the center was able to accept and accommodate the brothers. 

Studying English in Utah

Dan remarks that there have been times in their lives when they have been overlooked. “People with disabilities sometimes tend to be ignored by society,” he says. “But people [in Utah] have been so caring. We made a lot of friends who have really great hearts. They don’t make us feel like we are disabled; they make us feel like normal people, like we are children of God.”

Dan and Tatsu attended the ELC for one year before they enrolled at LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. Tatsu passed away in 2013. After graduating from LDSBC in 2014, Dan enrolled as a full-time student at BYU studying English, and he now speaks English proficiently. His goal is to be able to assist others as they learn English. 

Speaking of his disease, Dan says, “When I [understood] that Heavenly Father gave me this disability because He loves me, I no longer had limitations in my life.”

The Ito Brothers Scholarship

In 2015 the English Language Center established the Ito Scholarship, a half-tuition award given to one student each semester who demonstrates qualities similar to the Ito brothers. “Everything that we do at the ELC is focused on excellence,” says Hartshorn. “We want the students to be excellent. . . . One of the things that we thought of [to honor the brothers] was a scholarship.” 

The faculty and staff of the ELC remember Dan and Tatsu and plan to spread the brothers’ goodwill through the scholarship. Hartshorn says, “They made a huge impact on us. Here are people who have so much less than we have in a lot of ways and yet are selfless and are focused on helping others.”

Dan says that he is motivated by a love for God and a desire to serve Him. “Heavenly Father has such a great purpose in my life,” he says. “Knowing this, I can remain very positive and optimistic.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (BA Russian ’15) wrote this article for the Department of Linguistics and English Language for the College of Humanities. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Russian and a minor in women’s studies.

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