Playing first base requires a lot of concentration — which can be difficult when you’ve just heard life-changing news. That’s what happened to Drew Nishikawa during one eventful high school baseball game in 2019.

“My parents had checked my email and were texting me during the game, saying, ‘Oh my God, you just got into UCLA!’” he said.

Nishikawa’s brother, Jaret, was a UCLA junior at the time, and the news meant Drew would be able to follow in his sibling’s footsteps. “Right after the game, Jaret texted and called me — he was excited to show me around campus.”

The news was especially meaningful to Nishikawa because his journey to UCLA came with some unique challenges. Born with Poland syndrome, which left him with a smaller right hand and a missing right pectoral muscle, the right-handed Nishikawa had to grow up adjusting to life as a lefty. Although he adapted and even became a talented baseball player, he was also diagnosed with dyslexia, which made timed tests particularly challenging.

“I always had this idea that I would need to go to a smaller private school because I have a disability and learning took more time and effort for me,” he said. “Plus, I knew how hard UCLA can be in general. But once I got in, I knew I wanted to go — how could I turn down a place like this?”

Due in part to his innate empathy and lived experience, Nishikawa was drawn to psychology as a major, and he decided to join UCLA’s Special Olympics club as a coach.

“I really liked working with people with disabilities, and just showing them that, ‘Hey, I have a disability as well. If I can do it, you can do it,’” he said.

His work with Special Olympics ultimately encouraged him to add a minor in disability studies to his curriculum. In addition to providing him with his favorite academic assignment at UCLA — writing a 20-page paper on learning disabilities, which meant a lot to him personally — the minor led to Nishikawa to one of his most meaningful life experiences overall: an internship at KidAbilities, an occupational therapy service for children and teens.

“I’ve mostly been working with the same group of 5- to 7-year-olds since I started, doing a lot of swings, obstacle courses, puzzles and scavenger hunts,” he said. “We’ve really gotten close — at a recent visit the kids were even fighting over who I got to watch during the group session. They talk about how I’ve helped them, but in reality they have helped me gain much more.”

Jennifer Nishikawa
Attending UCLA meant Drew Nishikawa (left) could follow in the footsteps of his brother, Jaret. The two met regularly for lunch during Drew’s freshman year, when Jaret was a senior..

So inspired was Nishikawa by the internship that he now plans to pursue a career in occupational therapy. But for the time being, as he prepares to graduate, the fact that he is about to join his brother as a UCLA alumnus holds extra meaning for Nishikawa.

“It’s super awesome to know that this connects me and my brother in another way for life,” Nishikawa said. “He was a senior when I was a freshman, and we made it a weekly thing during our year here together to get dinner and hang out at Bruin Plate. It brought us closer to have that year together.”

Nishikawa isn’t yet sure yet how he will celebrate his graduation, but because Jaret’s graduation took place during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a family trip might be in order. And as he looks back at the past four years, Drew Nishikawa hopes that future Bruins with disabilities will take heart from his example.

“I was nervous and even scared about applying and then actually coming to UCLA, but that feeling of doing it is unbeatable,” he said. “We all have different abilities, but you have to be confident that you have something unique to offer.”