Robert E. Kennedy Library is hosting a commemorative exhibit entitled “Nisei Diploma Project: Stories from California Polytechnic State University” to honor Japanese Americans who were forced from their studies and sent to internment camps during World War II.
The Nisei Diploma Project is a response to Assembly Bill 37 (AB 37), which calls upon higher education institutions to extend honorary degrees to Japanese American students who were forced to leave school after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The bill, written by Assemblymember Warren Furutani, was signed into law by California Governor Schwarzenegger on Oct. 12, 2009.
Furutani said the bill, and the resulting degree ceremonies, are a step in the right direction to vindicate those forced to relocate from 1941 to 1942.
“The Nisei Diploma Project is an attempt to finish unfinished business, tie together loose ends and fulfill dreams that were deferred during World War II,” Furutani said in a press release. “It provides a teaching moment about this dark chapter of American history, which is important because if we don’t learn from our past mistakes we are bound to repeat them.”
According to the Nisei Diploma Project website, approximately 120, 000 Japanese Americans were sent to “war relocation camps”; and of them approximately 250 were students in the University of California and California State University systems.
With the signing of AB 37, many “Nisei” – a term used to reference second generation Japanese Americans – will receive academic recognition.
In September 2009, the CSU Board of Trustees unanimously voted to honor the educational accomplishments of Japanese American alumni. Since then, Cal Poly President’s office has been working closely with Academic Records and University Archives to identify former students eligible to receive recognition.
Cal Poly has identified 30 students who are eligible for degrees and found contact information for almost all of the honorees or their families via academic records dating back to 1901. Of the students identified, 12 honorees or their families were able to attend the award ceremony held at the University House, June 8.
“The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II represents the worst of a nation driven by fear and prejudice,” CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed said in a video press release issued in January. “By issuing honorary degrees we hope to achieve a small right in the face of such grave wrongs.”
Anna Gold, dean of Library Services, worked with Catherine Trujillo, head of Special Collections and University Archives, Ken Kenyon, a retired researcher in University Archives, and student volunteers Joyce Ting and Laura Sorvetti to create the exhibit.
Trujillo said she was honored to help with the Nisei program and has high aspirations for its residual effect.
“Nobody else has done exhibits, Cal Poly is the first one,” Trujillo said. “It’s built to travel and it’s built to grow. We tried to identify as many students as we could, so as more are identified they could be added to the exhibit.”
Trujillo spoke of Nelson Agaki, who was a staff photographer for the El Rodeo yearbook during his time at Cal Poly.
“I asked him what it was like when they got the notice to evacuate, and he said that some of the administrators were supportive and respectful that they had to leave. President Kennedy was there, and was actually the journalism teacher at the time so he taught Agaki. [Kennedy] was at the ceremony, and when Mr. Agaki went up to get his degree he gave Mr. Kennedy a hug,” Trujillo said.
Cal Poly is joined by CSU Fresno, San Diego and San Francisco in honoring its Japanese American Alumni. However, only Cal Poly has chosen to accompany its awards ceremony with a tangible memorial exhibit. For many of the honorees, the ceremony and exhibit allow for much-needed closure on the issue.
The display is in the Robert. E. Kennedy Library until July 5.