Yukio "Yo" Nishida with his family
Yukio "Yo" Nishida, residence life coordinator, lives on campus in Middle Earth with his wife, Michelle, and their children. "Some people mistake our house for a daycare center," he jokes. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

With its white picket fence, neatly sheared hedge and toy-filled yard, Yukio “Yo” Nishida’s home looks ordinary enough — except that it’s in the middle of Middle Earth, a UC Irvine student housing community.

Others might find such a living arrangement confining, but having hundreds of students as his closest neighbors is one reason Nishida loves his job as a residence life coordinator for Student Housing.

“I’m 44 now; when I’m 64 and maybe even 84, I want to be here. When you find what you love to do — your calling — it’s as if you never have to work a day in your life,” he says. “It’s magic to be among young people. It’s a joyful place.”

Nishida’s goal is to make campus living a positive experience for the 1,690 undergraduates who occupy Middle Earth during the academic year, and it’d be hard to find anyone more qualified. He has lived on campus for 16 years with his wife, Michelle ’95, whom he met when she was working in Arroyo Vista student housing. Their fifth child is due in March.

“When my children go away to college, they can honestly say they’ve never lived off campus,” Nishida says with a laugh.

Every fall, he and the other Middle Earth staff members assist those who have never lived on campus — helping freshmen adapt to their new home away from home and a multitude of other changes.

“Many students have never shared a bedroom or bathroom, and some struggle. The transition has some feeling homesick, others making bad choices and many trying to figure out how they fit in,” Nishida says. “Laundry and healthy eating are among the immediate challenges they face. But after a few weeks and some targeted assistance from staff, they adjust.” His work, however, is far from finished.

Nishida is one of eight professional staff members who live in campus housing. Their job is to integrate with the community, act as role models, respond to emergencies, and mentor resident advisers and other student staff. The most enjoyable part, says Nishida, is helping students learn who they are and feel that they matter.

“Yo isn’t just a supervisor; he’s a good friend who cares about you and is invested in your future. He’s had an impact on so many people,” says Melissa Norrbom ’09, a former Middle Earth resident advisor who works in the Office of the Dean of Students. “He always wants to know what’s going on in your life, and he’s so positive — he empowers you. Yo’s definitely a presence in Middle Earth; he and his family make it a warm place.”

Nishida assists R.A.s and students with all kinds of issues, including roommate trouble, academic pressure, personal problems and discipline — from playing soccer in the hallway at 2 a.m. to more serious violations like drinking in the dorms. A self-described introvert, he’s at his best talking one-on-one with residents, always looking beyond their behavior to get at the heart of the story.

“Students sometimes feel invisible,” he says. “We can change that by listening.”

Nishida has his own story, one that helps him relate to students coping with personal loss. When he was 15, his older brother drowned on a high school senior class trip five days before graduation.

“I had a lot of anger at God and the world,” Nishida recalls. “I escaped by drinking my way through the last year of high school and college.”

He found direction by helping others, volunteering for a hospice and working in student housing at UC Santa Barbara before putting down roots at UCI. Now Nishida is content watching his children learning to ride bikes on the paths that wind through Middle Earth and using the volleyball court as their sandbox. On Tuesday nights, he and his wife open their home to student staff members for meetings, and on Fridays they have a “family fun night” at the nearby commons.

“The job and my family — they saved me. They gave me purpose,” Nishida says. “I’m grateful for so many things.”