SDSU seeks ex-internee students
California campuses want to give honorary degrees
By John Wilkens
November 5, 2009
SAN DIEGO — More than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were shipped to internment camps at the outset of World War II. Some lost their livelihoods and homes. Young children lost their schoolmates and friends.
The sting of reduced possibilities also hit college students hard. They thought they had lost their futures. One wrote about feeling like “a moth fluttering futilely against a street lamp.”
It’s not clear what happened to them after the war ended and the camps closed. Records are spotty. Some probably came home and resumed their studies. Others went elsewhere and started over. And some probably abandoned the dream.
Now, 67 years later, colleges throughout the state are searching for those former students to give them or their heirs honorary degrees.
“The internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II represents the worst of a nation driven by fear and prejudice,” California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed said in a statement. “By issuing honorary degrees, we hope to achieve a small right in the face of such grave wrongs.”
Internment camps were created under an executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1942, two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tensions ran high, especially on the West Coast, amid widespread fear of a follow-up assault on the U.S. mainland.
About 2,600 students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled in California colleges at the time, including more than 30 at San Diego State University. The local students most likely were sent to the Poston camp in Arizona, with most of the estimated 2,000 San Diego County internees, said Susan Hasegawa, a history professor at San Diego City College.
In the decades since the war, there have been numerous government apologies about internment. Reparations have been paid.
But there was “unfinished business” involving colleges, said state Assemblyman Warren Furutani, D-South Los Angeles County.
He co-wrote Assembly Bill 37, which calls on the University of California, the California State University system and community colleges to reach out to people whose educations were disrupted by incarceration. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill Oct. 11.
“Time is running out for these individuals, and while California’s colleges and universities have had 60 years to act, few have chosen to extend honorary degrees to these former students,” Furutani said in a statement.
Now the trick is finding them.
There are no SDSU enrollment records from that era, said Robert Ray, head of the school’s special collections and university archives. No one had compiled an official list of campus internees.
“It’s not that things were hushed up, but documentation during the war years is very slim,” Ray said. “And after a time, there was a sense that whatever records were around didn’t need to be saved.”
San Diego State has been combing campus newspaper accounts — Ray said they document how “disturbed and disappointed” the community felt about internment — and pulling names from yearbook photos. The university’s officials have placed notices in the alumni newsletter. They’ve also been working with Hasegawa and the local Japanese-American historical society.
So far, they haven’t identified anyone eligible for the honorary degrees.
Colleen Bentley, director of special projects in the CSU chancellor’s office, said there were about 250 Japanese-American students at the system’s half-dozen or so campuses that existed at the time. (There were only two University of California campuses then, Berkeley and Los Angeles; UCSD was founded in 1960.) The students would be in their 80s or 90s now. Many have died.
Finding them may come largely the old-fashioned way — through word-of-mouth, Bentley said. School officials will be reaching out to nursing and retirement homes. News conferences are scheduled for next week.
“It’s an incredibly exciting project and an important one,” Bentley said. “These are people who had to delay or abandon their college dreams through no fault of their own.”
A Japanese cultural center in Northern California has been awarded a $25,000 grant to help find the former students. The same group spearheaded a similar effort several years ago involving high school degrees.
Once the honorees or their heirs are located, it will be up to the individual campuses to decide how to award the degrees, Bentley said. Some are planning to do it during regular commencement ceremonies.
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