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From nursing student to the Japanese Parliament

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Toshiko Abe
(center) greets a visitor in her role as the Japanese parlimentary vice minister for foreign affairs.

​Editor’s note: This article begins a series profiling winners of the 2014 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented April 8 at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in Washington, D.C.

Toshiko Abe holds a lifelong passion for serving the poor, children and the elderly that first inspired her to become a nurse.

Based on the recognition that changing politics leads to changing society, Abe more recently has pursued a career in the government of her native Japan, where she serves as a member of the House of Representatives and recently was parliamentary vice minister for foreign affairs.

Inspired partly by Mother Teresa, Abe told the Alabama news website AL.com, “My dream as a politician is to change our social welfare system.”

Her legislative career has focused particularly on health and nutrition for the elderly.

A start in Alabama

Abe’s path toward an American nursing license — after receiving a diploma from Mitsui Memorial Nursing School in Tokyo — took her through Gadsden State Community College in Gadsden, Ala., which she attended for one year.

“She has used her education to help the people of her country,” says Paula Ross-Derrick, coordinator of international programs for Gadsden State. “She rose so high in education, and then in politics and government, as a woman in Japan.”

After Gadsden State — which she attended because it was affordable and helped her improve her English through its Language Institute — Abe spent a semester at Jacksonville State University and three years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she received her license and worked as a nurse at the UAB Convalescent Center. Later, Abe received a Ph.D. in nursing administration from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

In the years following her doctorate program, Abe served as lecturer at Gunma University and then lecturer and assistant professor at Tokyo Medical and Dental University. She was first elected to the House in 2005 after a two-year stint as vice president of the Japanese Nursing Association, and she also served as parliamentary vice minister of foreign affairs. Abe has a stated goal to reform programs and increase quality of life for various vulnerable populations.

“With an extensive background in nursing, teaching and the Japan Nursing Association, I am qualified to work on programs to effect a positive change in the healthcare of my district, prefecture and Japan,” her website says. “I am equipped to reform the programs and the services for the elderly, the ill, the hospitalized, the handicapped and the young.”

Building confidence

Abe credits Gadsden State for giving her the knowledge and confidence she needed to succeed in healthcare, politics and life.

“Teachers at … the college had lots of patience to deal with foreign students who could not communicate enough to express themselves,” Abe says. “The professors and instructors were people who loved to teach and were open to different cultures. Those experiences helped me to deal with voters who have different opinions and ambassadors from different countries.”

Anatomy and physiology professors at Gadsden State taught Abe the importance of being open-minded to explore any and all questions as a scientist, she says. One student asked a question about the bone structure of the “Elephant Man,” and the teacher was willing to do the research, pre-Internet, to be able to tell students the answer.

Abe credits her parents for giving her the ability to believe in herself, her American husband for supporting her “to go forward wherever I needed to go,” and her host family at Gadsden State — Rev. Charles Smith and his wife, Sandy — for caring about her and believing in her.

“Their support always gave me the power to go forward … after I graduated from community college,” she says.

Sandy Smith, whose husband ministered to Paden Baptist Church in Gadsden, says they hosted Abe for two years and have kept in occasional touch to this day, despite the half-a-world’s distance between them.

“She was not just satisfied being a nurse but wanted to get her doctorate and begin teaching,” Smith said. “She was so concerned about the elderly being mistreated in her country—and elder abuse anywhere — and she wanted to make a difference.”

Even at a young age, Abe had good rapport with people of all age groups, especially the elderly, recalls Smith, whose mother-in-law, then in her late 60s, lived with the family and had begun to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Earning accolades

Over the years, Abe has won a number of awards and scholarships: the Pfizer Health Research Foundation Scholarship, Japan-North America Medical Exchange Foundation Scholarship, Health Care Science Institute Scholarship and the Institute of Health Economics and Policy MIX Award.

She says her primary involvement with Gadsden State has been providing interviews to local news reporters who want to know more about her career and life.

“We are proud of her,” Ross-Derrick says. “She’s an example of what an international education can do for a person, whether they are from Japan [and come to the U.S.], or an American who goes somewhere to study.”

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