Sunday, January 14, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 14, 2001

Honorable Mention
Strength in each other their key to success

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Not many college graduates can brag about a 3.4 grade point average, especially with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

Daniel and Catherine Mitsunaga

Ages: Both 26

Hometown: Moiliili

Position: Daniel graduated in December from the University of Hawaii-West Oahu with a bachelor’s degree in economics; Catherine is a rendering tech assistant at Square USA downtown.

Accomplishment: With Catherine’s help and support, Daniel learned to deal with his dyslexia and manage his attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, and he beat the odds to get a college degree.

Quote: "It’s never gone," Daniel Mitsunaga said about his learning disabilities. "You just learn to live with it."

But Daniel Mitsunaga’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t his academic performance at the University of Hawai
i-West Oahu.

With only the help of Catherine, the girlfriend who eventually became his wife, the 26-year-old learned to manage his learning disabilities and beat the odds.

Diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder at a young age, Daniel spent 12 years in special education classes, lumped together with students of various disabilities, including blindness, mental retardation and serious behavioral problems.

With students of such varied learning abilities in one class, Daniel fell behind academically, graduating from McKinley High School with elementary reading and writing levels.

But you don’t learn determination in a classroom.

"Just because a person has a learning disability doesn’t mean they’re not capable," Daniel said. "Their talents are just someplace else."

Catherine the Great’

An unlikely pair, Daniel and Catherine met at McKinley High School. Their meeting would change both their lives.

"Danny had the Mod Squad’ friends, all dressed in black," Catherine teased.

"She was in AP honors, student government, very popular," Daniel countered. "Everyone knew who she was. Catherine the Great. When I first saw her I said, That’s someone I need to know.’ "

Their worlds collided when they participated in a class play together. By senior prom, they were dating, something Daniel never expected.

"I figured we’d never date," he said, looking at his wife. "Who’d date someone in special ed? She was in honors. Her friends were overachievers. My classmates would eat as much as they can, then throw up."

He paused, then laughed, probably at a fond but distant memory.

Daniel graduated from high school with reading and writing levels lower than a fifth-grader’s.

Impressive SAT scores and grades made Catherine a perfect candidate for some competitive Mainland colleges. But she opted to attend Kapiolani Community College to be with him, dedicating most of her time to helping Daniel manage his disabilities.

She diligently taught him basic grammar and spelling, showed him how to combine words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Because of his attention-deficit disorder, she couldn’t keep his attention for more than 10 straight minutes. She had to be quick and creative, using techniques she learned in elementary school and the high school speech club. They spent long hours after work and school to focus on basic concepts.

"We went over simple things," Catherine said, "like what is a table of contents, an index, an appendix, a chapter."

Daniel has learned tricks, too. When he feels antsy or hyper, he goes for a run to get the excess energy out. A visual learner, he also responded well to Catherine’s reading aloud.

In the beginning, Catherine regretted her decision to stay in Hawaii, to attend a community college, especially when her classmates were attending big-name universities and studying to become doctors and lawyers. But Daniel has helped her feel independent and in control of her own life. She believes that what she has learned about herself and life from him has been far more valuable than a degree in pre-med or engineering. They were married in 1997.

"Being with Danny has taught me the value of family and friends," said the effervescent 26-year-old. "My life wouldn’t be the same. This is the best thing that ever happened to me."

Thirst for knowledge

Daniel always wondered what went on in other classrooms, what the other students were reading, writing, learning.

"He wanted to know everything I knew or be at the same level I was at," Catherine said about Daniel’s curiosity and appetite for learning in high school. "For him, a lot of it was the drive and want. It was more him than me. I led the horse to the water, but it was up to him to drink."

Daniel tried anything to comprehend the subject matter in his college classes. He used tape recorders often, and once brought in a video camera to tape a lecture.

"You do what you gotta do," Daniel said with a smile.

At KCC and UH-West Oahu, Daniel was offered some leeway for his disabilities. He could take an additional two hours for in-class exams and an additional day for homework. He never took those options.

"It was always a struggle for him because he was pushing himself," Catherine said.

In the meantime, Catherine, studying to become a nurse, decided to follow her heart instead of her mother’s advice. With Daniel’s support, she quit her full-time job as a bank teller and worked for $5 an hour in sales at Hawaiian Graphics. Having dreamed of being an artist, Catherine took a chance.

That job led her to an internship with Square USA, the company producing the computer-generated full-length animated film "Final Fantasy" in Hawaii. She was later hired as a rendering tech assistant, doing the artwork she loves. She credits Daniel for encouraging her.

"You do what you love, the job and the money will come," said Catherine, who will graduate from the University of Hawaii-Manoa with a bachelor’s degree in art next semester.

The Mitsunagas pride themselves on having accomplished so much, both individually and together, without any charity, though both families have offered emotional support over the years.

They succeeded at that the way they approach just about every challenge that comes their way: finding strength in each other.

"She had to care enough to put up with me, and I needed to care enough to learn," Daniel said. "She was the only one who cared enough to believe in me. And because of her, I’m here with a degree, ready to help anyone who wants to learn."

They both want to someday open up a school where he can teach other kids with learning disabilities and she can teach art.

"It’s never gone," he said about his learning disabilities. "But you learn to live with it."

Do you know someone who has won an award, given of himself or herself, or accomplished other great things? The Ohana section profiles remarkable people every week. Write: Honorable Mention, Ohana Section, The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802; e-mail; fax 535-8170.

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