Every year, we invite our Black Belt examinees to reflect on their journey to this moment. Their essays are typically gathered in a booklet that we distribute to friends and family who come to watch the exam. Like everything else during COVID, our plans are a little different. We’re still printing a few copies of the booklet as a keepsake for the examinees, but we’re distributing digitally for the rest of the community. We hope you are inspired by their words — and we encourage you to reach out to your friends to cheer them on this week!

Jump to Essay:

Sensei Welcome

For many years, our summertime Black Belt Exam has been a highlight for our dojo community. We looked forward to this once-a-year opportunity for students to shine and test themselves for their next big step. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit early in 2020 and caused huge shifts in our lives, we believed we could not continue with our plan for a July exam. At the time, we faced the unfortunate difficulties regarding our dojo lease, and we did not see how we could host a dan exam as we normally would.

Six months into the pandemic, our dojo remained completely online. Considering the extraordinary circumstances, we have been so grateful for the persistence and commitment our students have shown to karate and to our dojo. And we knew, with a second wave coming, we would expect this usual situation continue at least for the near term. That’s when we realized that our students who had been planning for their July 2020 dan exam deserved the opportunity to test for their dan rank, even if the test was not what we originally planned.

As you’ll see in the following pages, their essays show what karate training is all about. It’s a lifelong journey of self-improvement and becoming a stronger and better person.

So here we are ­— it’s the Black Belt exams, COVID-style! Just as any other black belt exam, this one will give the examinees a chance to demonstrate kihon, kata, and kumite showing strength, control, endurance, and budo spirit. This exam is definitely different in many ways as well — testing while wearing a face mask definitely makes this exam a unique experience to remember!

To our instructors, assistants, staff, families, and friends — we want to extend our sincere thanks for all the effort and positive energy you bring. If there is anything we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that, if we work together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.

To our examinees, congratulations on how far you’ve come. We are so proud of you. This is the time to recognize how far you’ve come, but stay humble and continue to train hard!

Sensei Jay Nacu,
Sensei Denise Nacu, and
Sensei Saul Notario

Christa M. Souris, testing for Shodan

“Wax on, wax off” ­— immortal words from an immortal movie that inspired my old roommate and me to  take a free lesson at our local dojo in 1995. After we bowed in, we jokingly asked when we were going to learn to “wax on” and “wax off.” Our Sensei’s response was Miyagian: to torture us with endless kicks, punches, blocks, and stances, until we could stand no longer. Though our recovery took days, we embraced the challenge and both signed up for the “Black Belt Club,” committed to train until we earned our black belts. Sadly, my roommate moved out of the state not too long afterwards. But, I continued training for three more years until I sustained an injury that required major surgery and ultimately ended my karate training.

Or, so I thought. Twenty-two years later, following seven joint surgeries, marrying my soulmate Jeff, graduating from dental school, moving to Chicago, and having two wonderful children, Nikolaos and Gabriella, I encouraged my son to join the Enso dojo. Sitting on the bench watching him train for a few Saturdays reignited my desire to “go for a black belt.” So, with my family’s support, I started training again in July 2017.

When I read Gichin Funakoshi’s “Karate-do, My Way of Life,” its message resonated with me: that karate is not simply a martial art, but a journey to a better way of life. A means of striving to perfect one’s character, learning patience and compassion, and respecting others as well as oneself. I realized that my recently rekindled passion for karate did not arise simply from seeking closure, but instead reflected my inner desire for greater focus, inner peace, and balance.

In June 2019, I was given the opportunity to become an Assistant Instructor at Enso. Initially I thought teaching children would be easy ­— a reiteration of lessons learned. But it proved challenging as I attempted to adapt to each student’s way of learning, helping them build upon their strengths while recognizing their weaknesses. Most gratifying for me has been helping our youngest karate-kas discover the confidence in themselves, and having a voice in asking questions. And that, as Mr. Miyagi said, “the answer is only important if you ask the right question.”

I wish to thank everyone at Enso for their guidance, patience, and friendship. It has been an honor to be on this journey with you, and I eagerly look forward to many more years of learning, practicing, and teaching with you. And to my family, thank you for your amazing support and love on this journey; I love you and am forever grateful for your support!

Evan Sterk, testing for Shodan

When I first stepped into the dojo, I was about five years old. My parents heard about Enso around the neighborhood and wanted to give kinder karate a try. At first I was nervous because I had never seen a place like it and it seemed a bit intimidating. Eventually, I got used to it and was always eager to go to karate class. Now, hundreds of classes later, I am here writing my black belt essay.

Over the years, I have learned a great deal and made many fond memories at Enso. I have learned self-defense, discipline, leadership, and respect. Karate has also brought me new friendships and skills. When I started, I saw the black belts doing advanced katas and teaching the lower belts. I was inspired by them and aspired to get there one day too. I have been committed to get to this point and worked hard to reach my goal of testing for a black belt.

Karate is a very special sport. It is a way of having fun, getting a workout, and learning new things all in one activity. On the one hand, it can be peaceful and meditative, while on the other, it can be powerful and challenging. But that’s the beauty of the practice.

In addition to the excellent classes, I also enjoy the competitions, which bring a whole new perspective to the sport. Instead of working toward the next belt and moving on, one works on perfecting specific skills for a better chance at winning. I have won some competitions in the past, and it is a good feeling to know that the hard work and preparation was worth it and paid off. I also enjoyed beach and park practices, which add an element of fun and new experiences. Another highlight was to take part in the flash mobs. I did two of them and, even though I was little, I really enjoyed surprising the unsuspecting bystanders and being in sync with such a large group. The energy shared by the flash mob participants was exhilarating.

Karate has opened me up to many new, unique, and memorable experiences. I am very thankful that karate has kept going during the pandemic and that Enso was able to pivot quickly to an online format to help us stay active and keep practicing. I really enjoy the one-on-ones because they allow me to focus on things that I need to work on. I feel very connected to the Enso community and am truly grateful to my senseis and all of the special people who have helped me get to this point. Enso and karate have been a big part of my life over the past eight years, and I hope that continues. It would be a great honor to share what I have learned so far and give back to the community.

Gabriel Torres, testing for Shodan

I started karate five years ago, not knowing how much of an impact it would have on my character and the person I want to be in the future. Throughout my karate journey, I’ve focused on the improvement of my strength, patience, and confidence. When I first joined karate, it wasn’t easy finding a community that I could bond with right away. But when I focused on the traits and characteristics that made me, I found my crowd and group of people that are still standing with me to this day.

By connecting to the lives and work ethics of those around me and focusing on how I could improve to maybe one day be like the advanced belts at the time, I eventually committed to doing my very best no matter what tried to stop me or who tried to talk me out of it. Through my perseverance and interest in growing connections with the other athletes that I worked with, I felt that this was the right family for me and continued to work towards the goal of becoming a black belt.

Of course, there were times where I went home feeling defeated or fatigued, not knowing if I should return to the dojo the next day. But my dedication to the tournaments and self-improvement made it easy to determine that returning to the dojo every day was more than the right choice. My determination to perform my best and give 110% in anything I did for this team lead to my success in the international competition in Hawaii, taking second in kata and third in kumite. I consider that tournament one of my biggest accomplishments that will stay with me forever ­­— not only for the fierce competition, but also for the connections I made with my team and the mezmorizing attractions. One of the biggest things I learned from my competition in Hawaii and the people I met during the trip was that the more I push and stay consistent, the better results I will see long term. Of course, success isn’t linear, which is another thing I’ve learned while being a part of this family.

The goal of becoming a black belt has transformed me into someone with ambitions, skills, and strengths that I could never say I acquired five years ago. The pictures of me as a white or orange belt embarrassingly depict my growth, physically, that karate has helped me experience in these past years. While receiving my black belt will be the next step towards the man I want to be in the future, it will also be symbolic of my journey as an athlete, friend, leader, partner, student, and role model. I am certain that karate will forever be a reminder of who I was as a white belt and who that white belt transformed into, thanks to my continued dedication and the karate family.


Jakob Sanchez, testing for Shodan

My journey in karate has been very tough and has had a big part in shaping me into who I am today. When I was a tiny little kid in a white belt during a cold winter, I never thought that I would become a black belt. But, slowly and surely, I worked my way through the ranks and the idea of becoming a black belt seemed more and more in reach. The tests have gotten harder and more straining. Now, on the brink of my goal, I have had some time to reflect on my karate experience.

There is no doubt karate has positively affected my emotional well being. One major example of that has been improving my respect for others and myself. For example, I recognize my classmates’ accomplishments and help others in need who are struggling with certain tasks or techniques. I have also developed respect for my friends in karate after realizing early on they are on the same journey as me. I have also recognized how far I have come on my own and realize how hard you have to work in order to get this far. Staying committed helps me realize I am capable of tackling long and enduring tasks.

Being in karate has also significantly improved my maturity. For one, it has greatly humbled me. Seeing all the senseis and senpais so much further than you and working so much harder than you really makes you realize you have a long way to go even though you have come so far. It takes time and effort to reach that point ­— not just in karate, but in life. I also learned to treat my opponents with respect ­— no exceptions. You have to make sure to bow to each other and shake hands even if it was a fierce battle. You also need to respect your sensei at all times and bow to them in order to show honor and reverence.

One more thing karate has done for me is teach me to dedicate myself to a great challenge. Karate gives me steps and goals to work toward, whether it’s a certain basic technique or a long and hard kata. Training in karate has helped me learn about perseverance. It helps me learn the importance of a good mindset and dedication to improving my skills. Even if I am working hard to improve one small part of my movement, I will still feel accomplished and proud of myself for working hard.

I have been told the black belt test is very long and taxing, but I feel certain it is nothing I can’t do. I have prepared myself for 7 years in order to take this test, and now I feel that I am ready. I cannot thank my senseis enough for helping me through this journey and I hope to walk back into class, in person, with a black belt.

Sensei Katie Coleman, testing for Sandan

In March, I was at my peak karate form. Over the prior year, I had trained 10-15 hours a week, lost 40 pounds, became a National Champion, and competed with the AAU USA National Karate Team. And I had finally internalized that I belonged – as a competitor, coach, and instructor – which was for me the biggest achievement of all, something I worked toward for years on a journey with many self-doubts.

After all that, I was really looking forward to taking my Sandan exam as this new more comfortable and confident person. Then COVID changed every aspect of our world. Like most people, I felt lucky for all that I retained – my health, my family, my job. But also like most people, I struggled – stressing out, gaining weight, and feeling unable to focus on things that used to be important to me. While karate remained a steadfast source of friendship, stress-relief, and community, my own karate skill and spirit felt weakened from its prior peak.

So when Enso announced that the exams were back on, I was actually crestfallen because I knew that the self I’d bring to the exam in December wouldn’t be nearly as strong as the self I could have brought to the exam in March.

But karate is very much about mind over matter – about enduring, and seeking perfection of character. I had lost track of that, but, as usual, my friends helped pick me back up. They reminded me that all those hours of training were still in my brain and body. They reassured me that I had nothing to prove. And they underscored that earning the Sandan rank has much less to do with my own karate, and much more to do with how I’ve helped others on their karate journeys.

I have not always helped in the traditional ways most black belts do. I love assisting in class, but I avoid the lead instructor role. I love coaching our athletes at practices and in staging, but I’m rarely the loudest cheerleader when ringside. My contributions to the dojo are often done along the sidelines, where I connect with students and parents, or at home – where I write most of Enso’s digital content and help organize our special events.

My contributions to the dojo are often behind-the-scenes because I have always been more comfortable there. But karate repeatedly finds a way to force me out of my comfort zone, and the COVID version of that was to come off the sidelines and into the ‘spotlight’ (literally, on Zoom!) as part of Enso’s massive effort to transition to an all-online dojo. Helping to create this virtual environment has been an extraordinary experience that has better connected me to the needs of our students and their families and forced me to become a better instructor.

This is how it is with karate – always something new to learn, always a new challenge around the corner, and always, always a way to dig deeper and find that there’s more to yourself than you thought. I’m so grateful to share this journey with all of you.

Lucas Larson, testing for Nidan

I started Karate in 3rd grade and have been practicing it for the past 10 years. Karate has helped me get physically and mentally stronger. It has helped me with memory, concentration, and leadership skills.

I was on the Enso Elite team the first year it started.  I was planning to join the team again this year, since I’m attending college locally. I wanted to work on getting more confident in competition and improve my teaching abilities. Unfortunately, COVID hit and changed those plans.

COVID has been a huge obstacle, but it’s not the only challenge for me this year. So far in 2020, COVID happened, I lost my job, my grandmother passed away, I graduated from high school, and I started college. It’s been a bit stressful! I feel like I was making good progress preparing for my Nidan test prior to COVID, but then I had to learn how to adjust to practicing in a new environment through Zoom. It was quite the challenge, but I feel like I’m still able to learn and improve.

I’m happy that the Enso community still exists during this difficult time. I feel lucky and happy to have a solid connection outside my house while having to quarantine inside. Karate is the highlight of my week.

I think the dojo kun is part of my character; it is second nature to me. I always seek to respect others. I also like helping the lower belts improve as well. I feel like you can never be perfect at karate and you can always keep working at it — it’s never ending. 

My goal is to continue to improve.

Raffi Barber, testing for Shodan

I started karate back, what, 8 years ago? So around 2012. I really didn’t have a say whether or not I wanted to go to karate, but I’m glad I didn’t. Before, I was an energetic ball of brown that had little to no discipline. I’d be lying if I said I had more discipline than I do back then. Nevertheless, I still do feel that I’ve changed in other ways.

It’s no secret that I used to be really out of the ordinary. I didn’t know how to take constructive criticism, I cried a lot, and I kept to myself. Whenever I was asked to give criticism, I didn’t know how to put words together. I couldn’t kiai, probably because I was embarrassed about it. Admittedly, this was up until recently. About a year ago.

I probably wouldn’t have changed so much if it wasn’t for the quarantine. My mindset was stuck, I never strove for better and just accepted what was given to me. But I was given time to reflect on myself and see the person I really was. And I was a loser. It’s about acceptance at first, and after that, you ask yourself how you can be better. Then you act on it.

To me, the black belt isn’t a reward given to me for all of my hard work. I’d say that it’s a fresh start. A new beginning. I’m sure there are expectations that I’ll have to uphold, so it’s going to be rocky at first. That’s all the more reason to push forward. You never get anywhere with the easy way. You need to sweat, cry, and fall to actually learn and strengthen yourself. The more you work and fall now, the better you’ll be in the end.

Though quarantine is still going on, and I’ll still be trying my hardest. If anything, the circumstances we’re in gives me more of an incentive to push myself to my limits. My goals aren’t as selfless as the others, who want to inspire and help others. I want to be better than I am now. For the past year and a half, I haven’t been satisfied with myself. So I’m going to work until I can be proud of who I am. Even then, I’ll be working my hardest. There is no end goal to better yourself. Why would you want to climb an endless mountain? Well, to see how far you’ve come from the bottom, and to climb even higher from there.

Sensei Rahmil Magsino, testing for Sandan

Testing for a dan rank is a significant milestone in any karate-ka’s journey. Not only does it mark a distinct growth in knowledge and technical skill within the art, but another change in your outlook and attitude in and out of the dojo. I’ve noticed that in each leg of my journey, my training has highlighted different dojo kun tenets. My training for Shodan encompassed endeavoring ­— working through physical and mental obstacles, striving towards that coveted black belt. When getting ready for my Nidan test, I found that being faithful, to myself and to the students that work with me, was taking a prominent role.  Now that I am working towards my Sandan rank, I see another dojo kun maxim coming to the forefront: seek perfection of character.

Master Funakoshi chose his words carefully when he wrote this tenet, as he shows that perfection is never reached, but is something that must always be strived toward. It’s important to me, as a karate-ka, to remember that a black belt is not an endpoint, but another marker that I am ready and committed to always seeking improvement.

Throughout the past few years as a Nidan, I have had many opportunities to push my training and experiences beyond my comfort zone. For instance, the Enso Elite team has given me an amazing chance to compete with others all the way up to the national level in both Kata and Kumite. Throughout those competitions, in the victories, but even more so in the losses, I have gained so much. Nothing points out where I need improvement quite like competition.

On occasions, I have also been asked to lead a class. As someone who was never comfortable with public speaking, these opportunities, though daunting, are exactly what I need to keep me on the path to being a well-rounded karate-ka. By no means was my teaching perfect, but the experience provided much-needed feedback from senseis and kohais on my understanding of technique and application.

Finally, during this pandemic, practicing karate has taken on new forms and challenges. The drive to seek improvement has allowed me to adapt and look at training in a new light. From training in my basement to keeping myself motivated and energetic, the situation has allowed me to flex “muscles” that normally aren’t used. This mindset has enabled me to seek out new ways to deal with what 2020 has thrown at me both in and out of the dojo.

I am honored to be participating in this dan test, and though unconventional and new in many ways, it also reaffirms the importance karate and our dojo community has in my life.

Ryan Wong Daly, testing for Nidan

I have been training at Enso for nearly 12 years.  Throughout my karate journey, I have received an immense amount of support from peers and sensei alike. Although the dojo has changed a lot over the years, I will always call it a second home, no matter where it is.

Being a black belt comes with many responsibilities ­—responsibilities I have been fortunate enough to hold for the past three years. I am grateful to have been able to help train the next generation of Enso, whether that be aiding in classes, making minor corrections, or even 1-on-1 feedback sessions. I hope I can continue to be someone the younger and less experienced students look up to in the future.

Karate has helped me immensely in the outside world. From a young age, I learned discipline, respect, and compassion. Through the amount of time I have spent around higher ranks and older students, I have been able to mature, both as a karate-ka and as a person. I am grateful for the amount of time and effort invested in my growth over the years, from private lessons to big classes. I have always had a great support system and so many caring mentors to guide me on my karate journey.

I’ve been told since the beginning of my training that earning a black belt is not the end of my training, and now that I am a black belt, I know it’s true. Throughout my karate journey, receiving my black belt has never been my first thought. I want to be the best I can at karate, and by training hard, opportunities will be presented to me.  Although times change, and I have had other interests, there have never been times where I wanted to stop training. Karate will always be a huge part of my life, no matter what else I may pursue in the future.

In these past 11 years of training, I have been fortunate enough to compete in tournaments both locally and internationally. Through competition, I have met many of my best friends, and become even closer to the ones I knew beforehand. Not only does competition push me, but it also motivates me to do better. Through traveling with the Enso Elite Competition Team, they have become like family to me. The amazing bond I’ve formed with my teammates will last a lifetime. There have been times when I haven’t been the easiest to support, but nobody ever looked at me differently or stopped supporting me. The team pushes me to be the best version of myself, both on and off the mat.

Karate is truly my passion in life, and I intend to train for as long as my body allows. Karate has taught me so much over the years, like discipline, humility, respect, and patience. I can’t imagine my life if I had never started training. Karate has changed my life immensely, and for that I am grateful.

Samuel Ko, testing for Shodan

When I was in preschool, my friends and I thought martial arts were super cool, and I announced that I was going to be a black belt someday. My friends didn’t believe me. And so when I was in kindergarten, I immediately jumped at the chance to start training at Enso. Now, nine years later, I stand ready to prove my friends wrong. Someday is now, and I am testing for my black belt.  Little did I know that karate wasn’t just cool, but that karate would help me develop physically, mentally, and socially.

Karate has developed my personal fitness, not only by the exercise it provides but by teaching me the limits of my body and how I need to push myself to become better. This work ethic taught to me in my dojo has spilled over into my school sport of cross country and track, where I push myself to my very limit (and sometimes past it). As a result, I understand I need to constantly work to build my fitness, and I now know the level I have to work at.

As I have become physically stronger, I have also become mentally stronger during my time at Enso. My sempeis and senseis have always been supportive and kind, but they have also taught me how to accept criticism without taking it personally or becoming upset. I have learned to take that lesson into school and the other areas of my life. In addition, karate has given me an outlet for stress, whether it be from school or personal relationships. It has been a coping mechanism that has allowed me to clear my mind and concentrate on what’s important. 

Even beyond those important lessons, karate has given me skills beyond self defense. It has taught me how to teach and empathize. I have been both student and teacher throughout my journey in karate. I have learned what it is like to be taught and sought to emulate my sempeis and senseis. In doing so, I learned how to put myself in someone else’s place and understand how they feel.

Working with younger students at Enso as a teacher has taught me so much as well. I have two younger siblings and several younger cousins. I have gained an understanding of how to relate to those that are younger than me and interact better with them as I learned how to teach younger students katas and other basics.

Karate has given me so much beyond what I expected when I started way back in kindergarten. Karate has taught me physical fitness, mental fitness, how to interact with people younger than me, and empathy. And that’s pretty cool.