Issa Okamoto, College First-Year, Social Media Influencer


Photo courtesy of Issa Okamoto

Issa Okamoto sings at her high school graduation.

College first-year Issa Okamoto is a social media influencer who has gained 370.1 thousand followers on TikTok and 22.3 thousand followers on Instagram. Okamoto has been involved with music for the majority of her life, specifically in opera and theater, and has hopes of being in the Conservatory for her second year. Her content demonstrates her day-to-day college student life from dining hall options to opera classes. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What led you to Oberlin College and Conservatory?

Four of my most important mentors pointed the way to Oberlin! My vocal professor, who coached me through competitive opera in high school, shared how incredible the Conservatory is, which was reinforced by my experiences and conversations in national music intensives at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Boston Conservatory, and the Washington National Opera. Then, while exploring colleges, I discovered that two of the most impactful, thoughtful, and creative adults in my high school are Oberlin alumni: my literature teacher and my school’s Director of Equity and Diversity, who is also a screenwriter.

Over the course of college applications, and with the isolation of COVID, I lost a bit of my passion for performance and found myself nervous to put all my eggs in one basket. I grew afraid of pursuing the artist’s life completely, and I really lost my dedication to classical music. So being able to explore the liberal arts in a place so historically committed to intersectionality in the context of the world-class music community became really important to me. I am still excited by the opportunities here at Oberlin to explore other ways of thinking, learning, and living in tandem with world-class music training! 

What is your favorite aspect of Oberlin?

Throughout my early life in Portland, Oregon, which is the whitest major city in America due to deeply problematic hidden histories, I constantly dealt with microaggressions and racism, even unintentionally from friends. And as the daughter of a struggling single mother working through family challenges, I often felt socially isolated. While I was extremely nervous to continue my education at a predominantly white institution, I have been so surprised to find an incredible sense of affinity and dedication to community here between BIPOC. The past few months have been truly pivotal for me personally in discovering what it feels like to have a feeling of connectedness and belonging in a place with others. 

Are you potentially interested in transferring to the Conservatory, and where did your passion for music and singing begin?

News travels fast! Yes, I would love to be a full time Conservatory student next year. I’ve been making music and singing all my life, doing renditions of High School Musical, Hairspray, and so many other musicals with my sisters. My first official “gig” was when I was nine, singing “The Power Of Two” at our “guncle’s” wedding. I started classically training five years ago. When the pandemic hit, I was on my way to regionals for the National Association of Teachers of Singing, had just performed solo at Carnegie Hall, qualified for programs in Boston and DC, and had “chosen” music. But as everything began to shut down, I pulled back a lot — I hated performing over Zoom from my room! My mom was always super supportive — she drew little people on sticky notes and hung them behind my computer and screenshotted audiences for me to focus on. But I realize now that I thrive on the energy of the relationship that builds with a real audience, the heart-connection with people in person. Without that, I really struggled. Since arriving here, I’ve met people who really did choose music, especially voice and opera, and have committed to performance. After seeing the one-act operas, I realized I wanted to develop my voice, learn to connect and perform, and be onstage too! 

Also, my family has a legend that when I was born, the midwife almost dropped me because I screamed so loud. Throughout my childhood, I could empty subway cars, make neighbors move, and my mom had to wear construction headphones when changing my diapers. For many years, screaming was my only outlet to escape the chaos and fear that I grew up around. Learning how to control my voice has been one of the most important lessons of my life. A few days ago, my first-year seminar professor said that school is not meant to weed out the gifted, but is supposed to help everyone in just finding their gifts and expanding on them. I realized that I’m happiest when I’m singing, and if I could study music full time, I would be pretty okay.  

How do you balance your social media presence with school?

It was pretty difficult to balance making content, making friends, and starting classes at the beginning of the year, especially as I was adjusting to being in college and meeting a lot of new people. I initially struggled to find my voice online. I would script out videos and only do sponsorships or contracted videos. But then I realized that I had more fun, I felt more myself, and that people were more drawn to the videos that I didn’t plan out, that were just authentic to my college transition, showing what delights me or annoys me or just how I feel and what I experience every day. Since then, it’s been a wonderful journey building a community of people who are going through the same things as I am, who can share what works for them, and who can give me advice. 

How did you become involved with social media, and is this an aspect of your life that you are looking to turn into a career? 

As cliché and influencer-y as this sounds, I really didn’t expect anyone to be interested in my life online. I only started to build a following when I began to not care about people’s perceptions about me and instead worked to promote positivity and share my experience as a young Asian-American woman living in white America, as a college first-year,  little sister, and daughter. I see my followers as a community — people I can talk to and confide in — and I think they do, too. Social media has really supported every aspect of my life, especially as I develop and evolve. It’s also opening the door to some amazing life explorations and helping me pay for college. I’m excited to explore how music, authentically and organically, can do that, too.