Yuriko Stowers was born in Yokohama, Japan, and grew up near Tokyo. But she knew from an early age that wanted to be something or somewhere different. She achieved that dream – today, Yuriko is a firefighter in Northeast Florida.
“I wanted to be a foreigner when I was a little kid. I wanted to look like a foreigner – blonde hair and blue eyes. And I thought I could be when I was a silly little girl,” she says. “But in a way, I guess my dream came true, because I am a foreigner here.”
And the United States was always where she had her sights set, as did a lot of Japanese kids.
“We always look up to you guys. We all have to learn English in middle school, but none of the teachers actually speaks English,” she says.
Instead, Yuriko learned English the time-honored way: watching American movies and listening to American pop music.
“I was a huge fan of Michael Jackson, of course. And Bon Jovi,” she says.
After Yuriko graduated from college, she worked various jobs in Tokyo without finding anything she liked. She left a good job to come to America on the spur of the moment, eventually coming to Northeast Florida. But she had difficulty finding work to match her skills and experience, and she returned to Japan.
“I went back to Japan for six or seven months. I wanted to live there again, but Japan is not a very friendly place for a 30-something woman to be working. I started having huge bald spots on my head. My mom said, ‘This is probably not the place for you to live anymore. Why don’t you go back to America?’” she says.
So she came back to Northeast Florida and got her old job back at a gas station convenience store. She started dating someone — whom she married a few years later — and thought about going to nursing school. But then a friend made a different suggestion.
“My husband’s best friend is a firefighter, and he said, ‘You can pursue that career if you want to.’ I got to know about firefighting and firefighters, and I was very interested in it,” she says.
The process of becoming certified as a firefighter is an arduous one, with a lengthy written exam and physical tests that rival the military’s.
“I struggled a lot,” she says, “but I was always surrounded by really, really great people. My husband was such a great help. He told me to quit my job and just concentrate on schooling. We were not even married, and he packed my lunch in the morning and prepared dinner for after school. He was very supportive.”
Yuriko passed the exams, and today she’s a firefighter with a county fire department. The process changed a lot of things about her life — externally, but even more internally.
“You can become whatever you want to be, as long as you don’t give up. In the past, I wasn’t really confident about myself. I would think about doing something and settle for something less,” she says. “But this time … it was a huge challenge for me, the language and the physical part. But I was always surrounded by great, great people who supported me so much.”