From Her Seat in Congress, Alumna Empowers Future Leaders

Inspired by other Asian American women politicians, Jill Tokuda is “holding doors open for others to follow.”

May 7, 2023

Jill Tokuda

Rep. Jill Tokuda

Rep. Jill Tokuda, B.A. ’98, attended her first political rally when she was still a child. She boarded a bus to a park in her hometown of Kaneohe, Hawaii, to hear Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress, speak. 

“She was tiny in stature; she was literally like 4-foot-something. But wow, talk about a force of nature,” Tokuda said. “She was a giant because of her passion and her will.” 

Mink was also the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress and the first Asian American to run for U.S. president. Her legacy includes writing monumental legislation such as Title IX, the Early Childhood Education Act and the Women's Educational Equity Act. 

“Young girls would not be in sports or academics had it not been for Patsy, this Japanese American woman from Hawaii,” said Tokuda, a Democrat who represents Hawaii’s 2nd District. 

Tokuda left the rally that day thinking, “that’s what I want to do.” Mink had inspired and challenged her to be a part of something bigger than herself. 

Years later, Tokuda represents the same congressional district Mink served in the 1960s. She shares Mink’s vision to create a brighter future for families in Hawaii. 

Tokuda, a fourth-generation Japanese American, said she’s long had a desire to help others, crediting her family for instilling those values in her from a young age. 

“To stand by and do nothing was unacceptable. That was something instilled in me by my grandparents and parents,” Tokuda said. “I think just instinctually, how we had fought to get to this country, you don't take that for granted. That's your opportunity and your ability to do something. Doing nothing was not an option. Standing by and being silent was never an option.”

Tokuda said there were many challenges her family faced as they made their life in the United States, but their resilient spirit has inspired her to never give up in difficult circumstances. 

Tokuda was born during her mother’s senior year of high school, and her parents saw education as essential to her future success. “They were young parents working, struggling to make it,” Tokuda said. “They didn't have a chance to go to college. They started working right away to support our family. So, for them, education was going to be my great equalizer. It was about giving me a real shot in life.”

By the time she was in elementary school, Tokuda knew education was the key to a future with unlimited opportunities. She not only focused on getting good grades but also spent a lot of time volunteering for causes that aligned with her passion for fighting inequality. 

“Seeing injustice in our country, in our state, in our community was about understanding my role in doing something,” Tokuda said. 

By high school, she knew she eventually wanted to run for public office and fight to make a difference. 

That’s when GW entered her world. Tokuda wanted to attend a university in the heart of Washington, D.C., with a strong international affairs school. GW’s Elliott School topped her list of choices, and she was thrilled when she received her acceptance letter. Still, she was anxious about the cost of attending college.

She described her years at GW, where she majored in international affairs and minored in Japanese studies, as a life-changing experience where she found community and belonging. 

Coming from Hawaii and matriculating in GW’s urban setting in D.C. was a bit of a cultural shock. Tokuda said she eventually connected with other students from Hawaii, and she laughed as she remembered how she met one friend in the canned meats aisle—SPAM is a popular food in Hawaii—at a Safeway near campus. She was also able to connect with her Japanese heritage by participating in the Japanese Intercultural Network. 

A large portion of her time was spent working with the GW College Democrats, where she found students who shared her passion for politics and activism. 

“Being at GW felt like I belonged. I think the common bond we all have at GW is that we already have a bit of a political self, at least an awareness and a bit of a drive,” Tokuda said. “GW gave me a lot of opportunities and opened a lot of doors for me. My time there affirmed running for office was really what I wanted to do.” 

While her college experience was a bright, defining moment in Tokuda’s life, she said paying for college was not always easy. “It was not a given. I had one or two jobs always.”

Without the financial aid she received from a Pell Grant and the federal work-study opportunities at GW, she would have lost out on the opportunity to attend the university, Tokuda said. 

Beginning with the class of 2025, the university will increase the financial aid budget for students eligible for Pell grants by an estimated $2 million annually to provide enhanced need-based grants, loans and work-study packages that will cover most of the direct costs of a GW education and allow families to avoid parent loans beyond their expected family contribution.; More students who qualify for Pell grants have enrolled at GW over the past decade. The total number of Pell Grant eligible students at GW has grown by 29.5%.

Her personal experiences of being anxious about college costs and watching her young parents struggle to provide have made her determined to use her time in elected office to create a future where families have the resources they need to thrive. 

Tokuda said in the same way women like Patsy Mink paved the way for her to run for office, she wants to use her time as a public servant to empower the next generation of leaders. 

“I always emphasize that it is a collective accomplishment that I can be here, and I stand on the shoulders of giants like Patsy Mink and [Hawaii Senator] Mazie Hirono and so many others who fought to be in this place and understood the importance of holding doors open for others to follow behind,” Tokuda said. “For me, it’s important to fight to make sure that we are represented and hold the door open for others to come forward as well.” 

Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships charts a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.