UC Regents Vote to Award Diplomas to Nisei

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The University of California will grant honorary degrees to hundreds of Japanese Americans whose studies at UC were interrupted when they were sent to internment camps during World War II. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

The University of California will grant honorary degrees to hundreds of Japanese Americans whose studies at UC were interrupted when they were sent to internment camps during World War II. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Aiko "Grace" Obata Amemiya, a pre-nursing student at UC Berkeley in 1942, proudly holds up a CAL T-shirt that she purchased in 1938, after addressing the UC Board of Regents in San Francisco. (KAREN YOKOTA/Hokubei Mainichi)

Aiko "Grace" Obata Amemiya, a pre-nursing student at UC Berkeley in 1942, proudly holds up a CAL T-shirt that she purchased in 1938, after addressing the UC Board of Regents in San Francisco. (KAREN YOKOTA/Hokubei Mainichi)

By SAMANTHA MASUNAGA
RAFU STAFF INTERN

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On Dec. 7, 1941, former Oxnard Assemblymember Nao Takasugi was a junior at UCLA in pursuit of a business degree.

He played for the university’s tennis team and also participated in the Nisei Bruins softball league, winning an all-university softball tournament.

However, he was able to enjoy only one year at the university before he was forced to relocate to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona, as a result of Executive Order 9066. Although Takasugi later attended Temple University and received a Master of Business Administration from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania, he was never able to return to UCLA to finish his degree.

There are 699 more stories like that of Takasugi.

Although some of these former UC students, like Takasugi, were able to complete their degrees at other universities, a majority did not, leaving them with an incomplete college experience devoid of a diploma or a graduation ceremony.

However, a resolution passed Thursday at the UC Board of Regents meeting at UC San Francisco will change this and allow JA students studying at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, or UC San Francisco in 1941-1942 to receive honorary degrees.

Compiled by a Task Force headed by UC Vice President of Student Affairs Judy Sakaki and UC Davis law professor Daniel Simmons, the resolution states that former JA students who were unable to continue their studies due to Executive Order 9066 will receive a new honorary degree from the UC called “Inter Silvas Academi Restituere Iustitiam (to restore justice within the groves of academe).”

This degree will be awarded to all students, living or dead, who were interned in 1941-1942 and thus unable to complete their studies, regardless of the degree that they were pursuing at the time.

By passing this resolution, the Board of Regents also enacted a one-time suspension of Regents Bylaw 29.1, which limits the number of honorary degrees to four per campus per year, according to a university statement. The last honorary degree given by the UC was awarded in 1972.

To pass a resolution, two-thirds of the Board of Regents must support it. When this proposal came to the table, it was unanimously approved, according to a press release.

“It meant a lot to me to see this come to fruition,” Sakaki said, adding that both her parents and her grandparents were interned during World War II. “It has been an honor to take this to the Board (of Regents) and have them unanimously approve.”

The idea of a resolution was first conceived after a woman who was unable to graduate from UC San Francisco’s nursing school because of the internment came forward, Simmons said. From there, he said that the Task Force was created to explore the possibilities of what the UC could do for other students who were unable to receive degrees.

“This is really unique in the history of the UC,” he said. “We really have worked hard to structure this as a unique degree.”

Other West Coast universities have already enacted similar resolutions.

In spring 2008, public universities in Oregon and Washington awarded honorary degrees to students, or descendents of such students, who were unable to complete their studies as a result of Executive Order 9066, according to a university statement.

Similarly, UC Berkeley held a public ceremony in 1991 for JA students who were set to graduate in spring 1942, but were unable to return for graduation ceremonies.

UCLA also held a series of special events in 1991-1992 to commemorate JA students whose learning was disrupted by the internment and awarded a regular, non-honorary degree to an alumna who was a few units short of graduation at the time of the internment.

But although this resolution only applies to former UC students, legislation is in the works that could allow JA students from California State Universities and community colleges to also receive honorary degrees.

Introduced in December 2008, AB 37 (Furutani) would confer honorary degrees upon each individual whose studies at a postsecondary educational institution were disrupted by Executive Order 9066, said Assemblymember Warren T. Furutani. Although this bill would only apply to public institutions, Furutani said that private colleges and universities are also urged to comply.

“It comes down to the settling of unfinished business,” he said. “It’s fixing past wrongs.”

Furutani’s work on AB 37 (Furutani) overlapped with that of the UC resolution and he said that although the bill and the resolution were developed independently, he worked with Sakaki on the issue of honoring Nisei who were unable to get diplomas.

Plans have not yet been finalized as to how the diplomas will be awarded.

However, Sakaki said that there is a strong sentiment that the degrees should be awarded through campus commencement ceremonies.

“It would be meaningful to have a graduation ceremony embedded in it,” she said. “That way, current students will learn, too.”

She added that a decision concerning the method and date of conferral will be released shortly, based on the age of the individuals.

“We’ll be moving on this rather quickly,” she said. “We were urged to do so by the Regents.”

The next step in this process is finding these former students.

Although Sakaki said that the respective UC campuses will be compiling lists of students based on information from the campus registrar, as well as from yearbooks and photos of JA student groups, she also said that the UC is encouraging family members to submit names of students who were unable to graduate because of the internment. Names can be submitted via email to [email protected] or by phone by calling (510) 987-0239.

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