The life of Junko Takeda: From undocumented student to university history professor

From undocumented student to SU full professor

This year, SU's history department promoted its first Asian-American woman and woman of color to full-time professor.
Published: December 10, 2021
History Prof. Junko Takeda in her Syracuse University office.
The Syracuse University history department's first female Asian-American professor Junko Takeda stands in her office.

“They tried to kick us out. But we are going to prove them wrong, together. Because you and I are one spirit, one body. Go get the job, and then come and see me.”  

Those are some of the last words Junko Takeda heard from her dying mother. 

Junko, a history professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, was narrating experiences from her academic and personal life to a group of students from different backgrounds. The audience appeared absorbed in her speech and filled with admiration for her resilience.

This was just one of the talks hosted by Junko, who recently became the first Asian-American and woman of color to be promoted to full professor within the history department.  

Junko had a determined look in her eyes. The talk was evocative and professional, yet at the same time, her speech reflected a trace of sadness and emotion. 

She talked about prejudices and behaviors that Asian-American scholars, and women of color in general, encounter in academia. She also shared her own experiences as a formerly undocumented immigrant and first-generation college student who became a scholar in the field of early modern French history.  

Takeda, now in her 40s, did not have a chance to see her mother again since she last spoke to her on the phone 15 years ago, while she was away from home on a research trip in France. 

She never even learned the exact cause of her mother’s death. Her mother died suddenly, not knowing she was terminally ill. Her mother had never regularly seen a doctor because they could not afford medical insurance. She passed away on the day of Takeda’s job interview at Syracuse University in 2006.

“I did not know when my mother died, but I knew she was already dying. She was in a coma,” Takeda said.

Her mother asked her father not to tell their daughter if something happened because she had a job interview. 

Kenichi Takeda, Junko’s father, said, “I keep my promise to my wife.” He recalled a phone conversation he had with his daughter. “Two days after my wife died, she called me when I was in the cemetery. She was like, ‘how’s Mom?’ And I told Junko she’s really OK,” he said. 

Junko’s mother’s death occurred near the end of her struggle to become a successful first-generation student, and at the beginning of her professional, academic life. 

“I was really numb at that time,” Junko said, recounting one of the saddest moments of her life. She said she had no time to mourn for the first six months because her mindset was always to take care of her parents.  

Junko Takeda and her mother on Takeda's college graduation day from Duke University.
Junko Takeda poses with her mother at her college graduation in 1998.

“You are a first-generation student. You carry $80,000 in medical debt because your mother died. There are things I can’t do. I have a family responsibility,” Junko said. 

Junko was born to a Japanese mother and a Korean father in Japan. Her parents came to the United States with student visas when she was 3 years old, in 1979. They were both daycare teachers and looked for a better life and more opportunities for their daughter. After their student visas expired and their employers declined to help them obtain H1 visas, they became undocumented.

“It was a lot of emotional and psychological trauma,” Junko said, referring to the deportation orders her family received from the court in those looming years. 

She said her family’s immigration lawyer encouraged her to get good grades in school so that he could say she was a good student at their deportation hearings. 

“I felt responsible that I had to get ‘A’ not to get deported. I don’t think that was what the lawyer meant. But the way a little kid interprets that is, it was my responsibility. I have to save my family,” Junko said.

From elementary to high school, Junko not only focused on her academics but also participated in various extracurricular activities such as music and painting. 

“I think her hard work came from her mother because her mother was a hard worker,” Kenichi said about his daughter’s attitude towards her education and work. 

“You have to build up yourself; otherwise, you have no life in the U.S.,” Kenichi added. 

With the help of her family, including her maternal grandmother in Japan, Junko attended four years of high school at Charlotte Latin School in North Carolina.“My grandmother had to work three jobs in Japan,” Junko recalled about how she survived in those days of financial instability. 

 Junko said when her parents were hired for jobs, they were offered only half-pay, and they could not negotiate because they were undocumented in the United States. She said that she and her family had to go through obstacles for over a decade until 1986 when they were able to file for amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s new immigration reform act.

 Her own undocumented life and experiences made Junko interested in the concepts of legality, illegality, and citizenship blended with human experiences in history. “When I think about history, it’s not just about dates and memorizations,” Junko explained. The origins of American democracy, rights, and liberty were all questions she explored in high school, which later led to her professional career as a French historian and researcher. 

Junko Takeda and her book,
Junko Takeda poses with one of her books.

Despite financial limitations, Junko’s family managed to invest in her education, which paved the way for her to obtain a higher education. “I went to college on financial aid. You are studying, but you also have to work for the university,” Junko said, who worked various jobs ranging from librarian to bartender. 

After two decades of commitment and sacrifice, Junko has reached another achievement with her promotion to a professor at SU. 

“It should not be me. It’s late. [The year] 2021 is late,” Junko said, referring to her promotion as a full professor in 2021. 

Radha Kumar, an assistant professor of history who has known Junko for almost a decade, agreed. “It could happen a lot sooner. But I am glad Professor Takeda has broken the glass ceiling,” Kumar said. 

Junko said that getting a Ph.D. as a person of color is, even now, extremely challenging, 

“I don’t look like a French historian,” Junko said, recalling the discriminatory comments she encounters based on her race and ethnicity. 

Junko said she ignores those incidents — what really bothers her, she said, are the assumptions that people have about Asian women, based on her own professional experience. 

“I always struggle with expectations of what Asian women are to be like. That’s kind of been a challenge for many years. Keep your head down and don’t complain at work,” Junko said. 

History doctoral student Lydia Biggs said, “Not only is [Junko] tough in her career and what she’s gone through, but she’s tough in how she advocates for the students and understands the marginalized experiences [they go through].”

Junko now spends her time on research, writing books, giving lectures and sharing her personal story with others. She also mentors and advocates for underrepresented students, particularly first-generation and undocumented students who, like she once did decades ago, need advice and encouragement.

“The work she does takes time. She’s generous,” Kumar said, referring to Junko’s efforts to reach out to people and address issues of structural racism.

Junko has a vision for the future of “more listening and empathy.” She’s hopeful that there is space to grow.

“The last few years in America have been very ugly,” Takeda said. “I would like to see a sense of slowing down, listening to one another, and developing a sense of empathy.”

Avatar for Khin Myint

is a magazine, newspaper, and digital journalism graduate student from Burma and contributor for The NewsHouse.