Editor’s note: Our new “Good in the Universe” story collection aims to highlight the good happening in the BYU community and people who are making a positive difference in the world around them.
International BYU student Dan Ito always dreamed of attending BYU, and although the road was far from easy, he never lost his faith.
Dan grew up in Tokyo, Japan, in a family bigger than most in the country. He is the youngest of seven children in his family. Four of them, including Dan, were born with spinal muscular atrophy. Spinal muscular atrophy is a genetic disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement.
“I can’t do anything with my own hands,” Dan said. “I can drive my wheelchair, but I need help when I’m eating and when I shower — I need someone’s hands.”
Dan’s two brothers closest to his age, Tatsu and Hidenori, also have spinal muscular atrophy, as did his eldest sister who died before Dan was born.
Despite the disease, Dan said his family’s happiness comes from the parents’ support, especially from their mother. Dan said his mother made sure her children had fun, and always cheered them up when they were feeling down.
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“I really started to want to go to BYU because I felt like church on Sunday was the best day,” Dan said. “I wanted to be surrounded by people with the same beliefs, so I was dreaming about coming to Utah.”
Dan said he soon realized how difficult it would be for him to attend school with his condition in a foreign country. He felt it would be impossible and didn’t want to burden his parents by asking them to join him.
“I had the same desire (to go to BYU), but I didn’t know what to do,” Dan said. “My brother reminded me I wanted to study at BYU, and he asked me if I felt I should come with him to Utah.”
Dan said his mother always did everything she could to help her children achieve their goals. Dan’s brother, Hidenori, died suddenly at the age of 21. Dan said his brother was extremely intelligent, and despite his condition, Hidenori had a job. After his death, the family learned Hidenori had saved up a good amount of money.
“My mom said, ‘I feel like things happen for a reason, and maybe I’m now able to come with you to the states,'” Dan said. “We felt like Hidenori had been working really hard for us to be able to study here.”
Dan and his brother Tatsu started studying at the English Language Center after arriving in Provo. Dan didn’t know much English when he first arrived and said he was intimidated. He studied diligently after moving to Salt Lake City with his mother and brother, and after one semester, he joined Tatsu at LDS Business College (LDSBC) in 2011.
Dan inspired Eloisa Martinez, a fellow LDSBC student, with his optimism. They quickly became friends during their time at LDSBC.
“Dan’s constant cheerful disposition lifted me and anyone that was around him,” Martinez said. “He always found a way to inspire us to keep moving forward when circumstances were hard.”
Martinez said she helped her friend throughout the day when he needed it.
“Dan and I love food, and when we both spend time together, it normally includes eating,” Martinez said. “Those are the times that I get the chance to help him eat, and it’s always so much fun.”
Martinez said one of the many lessons she learned from Dan is there is always a reason to find joy in life’s journey.
“During a talk, he once said, ‘I cannot move my arms and legs, but I am so happy,'” Martinez said. “Under the most difficult circumstances Dan has done some incredible things, but the best part about Dan is his compassion towards others and desire to serve.”
Dan’s brother Tatus died suddenly in January 2013. Dan chose to honor his brothers by finishing what they had started. He graduated from LDSBC in 2014. He said his desire to study at BYU grew stronger because of them.
“I was able to become a strong person because of all the challenges I went through with their passings,” Dan said. “I started to be more determined and passionate about what I should be doing in this life.”
Dan was accepted to BYU in 2014. He said receiving his acceptance letter was one of the happiest moments of his life.
“I think who I am is a huge part of (my optimism),” Dan said. “I think I have this condition for a great purpose. There are great things ahead me.”
Dan’s good friend Gideon Carter worked with him as a tutor for a year and a half.
“I’ve been with Dan through some big events in our lives,” Carter said. “Both of us lost brothers in the time we’ve been friends. He was an immeasurable support to me.”
Carter said he is impressed by Dan’s hope and his testimony of Jesus Christ. Though Dan has seen several of his siblings die of spinal muscular atrophy, Carter said he has never seen Dan’s faith waiver.
“He is such an inspiration, and that isn’t because he is in a wheelchair,” Carter said. “Dan is an inspiration because he is a phenomenal human being with an incredible amount of grit.”
Dan has great determination and is a hard worker. He has to type every paper with an onscreen keyboard one letter at time using only one finger, according to Carter.
“I remember when he was at the LDS Business College spending days writing a 10 page paper,” Carter said. “It didn’t take him days because he didn’t have the knowledge to do it, it took him days because he had to write it one click at a time.”
Another friend of Dan’s, Jiwon Moon, said Dan changed her life. Moon described Dan as the happiest, most spiritual and charitable person she knows. Moon, along with another friend, feed Dan on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“We laugh and play games with each other on campus,” Moon said. “While we are walking around campus, a new person will always say hi to Dan.”
Dan always knows how to make Moon laugh whenever she’s in a bad mood.
“Without being friends with Dan, I really don’t think my experience at BYU would be as fun or meaningful,” Moon said. “I used to be intimidated by handicapped people because I didn’t know how I could become friends with them. What I failed to realize was how funny, smart, hardworking and grateful Dan is. Dan is the coolest person I know.”
BYU has proven more difficult than Dan imagined, but he welcomes the challenge. He is studying English with a minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Dan wants to return one day to Japan, teach English as a second language and help others with disabilities.
Despite the difficult journey, Dan said he wouldn’t change a thing about his life.
“This has been an amazing and productive experience,” Dan said.