“I loved the people, I think is what first drew me to it. … It’s a very specific kind of openness you have to have, as a performer.”

It’s the end of the week, and though Megumi Nakamura, a sophomore in the University of Michigan’s Music, Theatre & Dance School, is juggling a packed schedule — she has six hours of class on an average day, is currently working on two theater productions, is often in rehearsal until 12:30 in the morning, works with faculty in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance on issues of diversity and facilitates workshops for visiting elementary school students and middle-schoolers through the Michigan Performance Outreach Workshop — she’s friendly and eager to talk.

This is the kind of openness that, it seems safe to say, would be exhausting to most people. Luckily, Nakamura is not most people.

She leans forward as she continues speaking, spreading her hands in the kind of emphatic gesture that comes naturally to her.

“I started to figure out that being a community leader and activist, theater was an incredible outlet for that, and it gave me a voice, and it was a way that I understood how to give other people a voice, how to tell stories that I wanted to tell.”

Nakamura is working to share this outlet with others through the Michigan Performance Outreach Workshop. She joined MPOW, which brings students from Detroit-area schools that have little or no funding for the arts to the University for a day of performance workshops, as a freshman. Through it, she’s able to accomplish what she considers to be her overall goal in college: “to bring back a high level of arts to underfunded schools like that” and to “spark interest” in performance.

She smiles as she describes the kids’ reactions, saying, “We do, like, one day of workshops with them, and performances, and at the end of the day, students walk away being like, ‘I can be an actor,’ or like, ‘You know what? I think I’m a good actor!’ ”

Involvement in MPOW seems to have been a natural path for Nakamura, who grew up attending public schools in San Rafael, Calif., that also had little funding for arts education. After realizing her love for the performing arts, she was able to find outside resources through the San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater, and eventually began providing them for others: She started teaching theater as an assistant in high school, and began teaching theater and dance on her own after she graduated.

Now, as the incoming vice president of MPOW, Nakamura is determined to expand the impact of theater as a means of nontraditional learning and communicating unvoiced stories and experiences. While the organization currently focuses on fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade kids, she’s hoping to expand it to include high-schoolers and college-prep-style workshops.

Despite the amount of time and effort she puts into the performing arts, she doesn’t get tired of it. When asked what her ideal, stress-free situation is, she laughs and responds: “Probably seeing theater, honestly. … That’s kind of the most relaxing times I have, to just sit and appreciate my classmates and fellow actors and see the work people are doing. I think … a lot of the most exciting work that happens here comes directly from the students — student-directed and student-written pieces, because those are the shows that are reflecting our current situations.”

Nakamura’s commitment to giving voice to relevant stories is one of the primary reasons for her involvement in different communities on campus. She doesn’t get carried away with herself, though — she understands the importance of stepping back to assess a situation from the outside, a practice that can easily get lost in the drive to stand out as a leader on campus.

“Coming here was overwhelming at first because … I wanted to be able to connect with anyone that I possibly could, and there’s so many people here, and so many different identities that it’s been a really incredible and challenging process to step back and say that, in order for me to one day be the leader and activist that I want to be, and be someone who … facilitates platforms for people to share their voices, their opinions, I have to understand those communities first.”

As a leader, Nakamura is able to teach and empower, but more importantly, she’s able to listen.

“I know I can help more if I wait and I learn from the members of that community and recognize my own ignorance,” Nakamura says.

She places her hands resolutely on the table in front of her as she says this. Performance, after all, demands a certain amount of receptiveness to the audience — and Nakamura’s ready to take the stage.

See the 7 other students of the year here.

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