Kanako Iwanaga leaves Japan to pursue Ph.D. at UW-Madison

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With a passion for helping people with disabilities,
Iwanaga leaves Japan to pursue Ph.D. at UW–Madison

Ask Kanako Iwanaga why she decided to leave a successful career in Japan to travel more than 6,000 miles to pursue a Ph.D. at UW–Madison, and the native of Tokyo responds quickly and confidently.

“I want to contribute to the betterment of the human condition,” says Iwanaga, a third-year doctoral student with the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education.

“After working, teaching and researching for 10 years in Japan, I realized that in order to further help people with disabilities improve their quality of life, I needed to pursue advanced training,” she adds. “And UW–Madison is home to the top-ranked rehabilitation psychology and counselor education program in the United States.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in health psychology from Waseda University, one of the most academically selective and highly regarded universities in Japan, Iwanaga worked as a vocational rehabilitation counselor (2004–09), a researcher with the National Institute of Vocational Rehabilitation (2009–11) and as a Lecturer with the Department of Human Resources Development at Polytechnic University (2011–14). In 2013, she also received a master’s degree in lifespan development from the University of Tsukuba, graduating at the top of her class.

Kanako Iwanaga
Kanako Iwanaga, a native of Japan, is pursuing her Ph.D. with the
Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education.
It was during this last stop that Iwanaga helped arrange for UW–Madison Professor Fong Chan to give a visiting lecture in Japan.

“I knew about him because I had read his research articles and he is a very big name in our field,” Iwanaga said of Chan, who today chairs the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education (RPSE), and is the Norman L. and Barbara M. Berven Professor of Rehabilitation Psychology. “During his visit he said, ‘You should come study in the United States.’”

Two years later, Iwanaga says she felt she had learned most of what she could know about the field of rehabilitation counseling/psychology in Japan, and was ready to make a move to learn even more.

Despite the language barrier and needing to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar environment and new culture, Iwanaga has thrived in her new setting while maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.

Earlier this year, she received her second master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at UW–Madison, where she currently is the lead research assistant on two major projects within RPSE. Iwanaga also has worked as a teaching assistant in the department, leading classes in rehabilitation counseling and adult cognitive assessment, among others.

Perhaps most noteworthy is Iwanaga’s success as a prolific and respected researcher, having published seven articles in major journals — including two senior authorship papers — since arriving at UW–Madison. In addition to helping UW–Madison faculty members with their projects, Iwanaga is also developing her own research program in motivation, self-determination and treatment adherence.

Kanako Iwanaga pull quote“I want to study the theory of motivation,” says Iwanaga. “It’s only a theory and we don’t have much that is practical yet. But one day I hope to have enough research and evidence to be able to teach counselors how to motivate people to better their lives.”

Iwanaga originally planned to return home to Japan after graduating, but now says it’s her goal to remain in the United States to teach and conduct research after graduating from UW–Madison in the Summer of 2018. “I have taken every opportunity at UW–Madison to prepare myself to be become a competent professional counselor, educator and researcher so that I can be more effective in helping people marginalized by society,” says Iwanaga.