While most school-age kids dodged playground balls, Jonathan Yamasaki dodged cockroaches and gang violence.

To call this year’s Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship winner a survivor is just part of the story. At age 21, Yamasaki, a third-year NAU business administration major, moved mountains to overcome adversity and continues to exemplify strength, perseverance and altruism in all he does.

Earlier this month, Yamasaki was selected from a national pool of candidates to attend a seven-week PPIA summer institute at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy where he will learn skills needed to succeed in graduate school and ultimately, in a career as a public service professional.

“I’m excited to have been chosen for the PPIA fellowship and look forward to exploring the world of public service, and learning how I can utilize what I bring to the table to help others,” Yamasaki said.

While growing up in a south Phoenix neighborhood riddled with crime and gang violence, a career in public policy was the furthest thing from his mind. “As a kid, I was just trying to survive,” Yamasaki said. “I didn’t even know the word ‘college’ until I was a sophomore in high school. I was battling depression and acted out by doing things I’m not proud of, and even joined a gang for protection. It was the only world I knew.”

While poverty and child abuse were ever present, Yamasaki shared that he never stopped listening to the voice within that said, “I know I can get out of this.” In high school, he became involved in extracurricular activities including football, wrestling, choir and piano as a way to spend more time away from home.

His school community and mentors taught him that the color of his skin was not going to predict where he would end up in life. Yamasaki spent late nights applying for 34 scholarships and the work paid off in full-ride tuition assistance, making it possible for him to work towards a degree.

Over the years, the NAU junior has connected with many leaders in public policy, including Juan Sepulveda, former executive director of the Hispanic Americans White House Initiative, whom he now calls a valued mentor.  Yamasaki is hoping to give back by bringing Sepulveda to NAU to speak with fellow business college majors.

As a first-generation college student, Yamasaki quickly realized he could help students with similar backgrounds get the support they needed. He and a small group of friends created Daleth Phi Aleph, a social group dedicated to brotherhood and sisterhood for multicultural and first-generation students. Today, the group consists of 16 members, three alumni and six pledges.

In addition to earning the fellowship and spearheading campus initiatives, Yamasaki has attended the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., the annual Harvard Latino Law Policy and Business Conference and was recently asked to be an NAU student representative for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The business administration major is determined to help students overcome obstacles and his post-graduation plans are no different. He hopes to create his own specialized nonprofit in Arizona to aid underprivileged youth in the successful pursuit of a college education.

“I consider myself a survivor and know that my past experiences have made me who I am today,” Yamasaki said. “I could very easily be one of those guys behind bars but instead, my life’s mission is to help others find a way to a better life.”