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World War II internees may get honorary degrees 9/20/2009
By Cyndee Fontana / The Fresno Bee
Dozens of Japanese-American students forced to abandon Fresno State for World War II internment camps may soon receive honorary degrees.
The California State University Board of Trustees, prompted partly by state legislation, will consider the degree program this week at a meeting in Long Beach.
But officials already are looking for candidates, including nearly 80 students once enrolled at Fresno State.
CSU likely will join a long-running movement in education to honor a lost generation of Japanese-American students. High schools across the state have awarded diplomas, and the University of California announced an honorary degree program in July.
UC officials describe it as one way to address an historical tragedy that forced about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps.
In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing the military to round up Japanese-Americans on the West Coast & imprison them in camps that included barbed wire & armed guards. The move came in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Locally, 2 Assembly Centers -- one at the fairground, the other in Pinedale -- were set up to hold Japanese-Americans before they were sent to internment camps.
UC & CSU officials say many college students of that era may have never returned to earn degrees.
Bill Secrest Jr., local history librarian at the Fresno Co. Public Library, is heading the Fresno State research effort that began earlier this month. Official university records no longer exist, he said, but student directories have yielded 78 names. Over the decades, students have relocated, changed names through marriage & died. He said it will take a few months to comb through census records, newspaper obituaries & other sources. "We are just now starting to work on this data to find the students who might still be around," Secrest said.
CSU policy now provides for honorary Doctoral degrees. Trustees will be asked to make an exception to allow the honorary Bachelor's degrees.
Nine CSU campuses had been established by 1942, including then-Fresno State College. CSU officials say historic accounts show nearly 250 Japanese-American students were on 4 of those campuses when the internment began.
Bobbi Hanada, past governor of the Central California District Council of the Japanese American Citizens League, praised the concept of honorary degrees.
"Lots of people were uprooted and didn't have a chance to graduate," she said.
UC & CSU plans closely mirror recent efforts to award diplomas to Japanese-Americans removed from high school. Dozens of diplomas have been presented locally in the last few years.
Assembly Member Warren Furutani, D-South Los Angeles Co. introduced a bill in December that called on UC, CSU & California Community Colleges to extend honorary degrees. He estimated that more than 2,500 degrees could be conferred -- some posthumously. Furutani's bill received strong support -- including from the state community colleges' Board of Governors -- and now is pending on the governor's desk.
Fresno City College officials said no discussions have yet occurred about honorary degrees. Furutani, whose parents met in an Arkansas internment camp, said he wanted to "take care of unfinished business before this generation passes ... it's like tying up a loose end."
Carole Hayashino, vice president for university advancement at California State University, Sacramento, spoke at legislative hearings on Furutani's bill. For Hayashino, who testified as an individual, the issue has personal echoes. Her father, then a freshman at College of the Pacific in Stockton, was forced to drop out & report for internment, she said. "And after the war, he never had a chance to go back to college," Hayashino said. In the 1990s, Hayashino was involved in efforts at San Francisco State to recognize war-era Japanese-American students as honorary alumni. Honorary degrees, she said, would "bring closure to a group of Japanese-Americans who were really denied their constitutional rights ... it is part of the unfinished business of 1942."
At the University of California, officials estimate that about 700 Japanese-American students were removed from 4 UC campuses. That includes 15 students at the College of Agriculture, now UC Davis.
Eric Heng, policy & program analyst for Student Affairs in the UC President's Office, said officials have received 125 inquiries since the program was announced in July. Officials, mainly at the campus level, are sorting through the information.
UC began work on the issue last fall after officials at the San Francisco campus asked about honoring the students. Heng said they decided to consider a systemwide approach. That led to the formation of a task force, which recommended the honorary degrees to regents this summer. Diplomas will bear the Latin phrase "Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam" -- translated, "to restore justice among the groves of the academe."
Former CSU students whose studies were interrupted by World War II internment (or their families) can call (562) 951-4723 or e-mail Nisei@calstate.edu
A local contact for Fresno State students is Bill Secrest Jr. at (559) 488-6720.
Former University of California students, or their families, can e-mail HonoraryDegree@ucop.edu or call (510) 987-0239.