By GWEN MURANAKA and MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writers
USC Asian Pacific American Student Services (APASS) celebrated its 30th anniversary on April 7 with music, dance and a pointed message on the USC Nisei diploma issue delivered by noted civil rights attorney Dale Minami.
In 2011, Asians and Asian Americans comprised 25 percent of the freshman class at USC. Since 1982, USC APASS has worked to empower APA students on campus through career and peer mentoring, leadership development, advocacy and cross-cultural and educational programs. Recently APASS has created programs targeting South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students. Alternative spring break programs have given students the opportunity to travel to Manzanar and Hawaii.
During the dinner, students and staff broke out into a flash mob dance set to music from the three decades the university service program has been in existence.
JD Hokoyama and Jeff Murakami, former APASS directors, were in attendance at the gala held at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Grand Ballroom. Dr. Sumun L. Pendakur, APASS director, served as emcee, and welcome remarks were given by Michael L. Jackson USC vice president of student affairs and State Controller John Chiang.
Minami, recipient of the inaugural Roots to Branches award, praised APASS for making USC more inclusive and creating programs for students of color.
Minami, who was the lead attorney in Fred Korematsu’s coram nobis case, noted that he didn’t return to the campus for many years.
“We didn’t have APASS then, and our experience then was kind of a microcosm of American society. It was white dominated, it was privileged, it was racist, it was sexist, it was elitist,” said Minami.
Minami said he hopes that the USC administration will reverse its decision and award honorary degrees to all Japanese Americans whose educations were interrupted by Executive Order 9066.
“Part of the problem is not just that they were taken away, but USC would not release the transcripts of the people who were taken away, so they could not transfer to other schools, because they were thought of at that time as enemy aliens by this very school,” said Minami. “And they’ve gone part of the way and done really well in the sense that they’re giving honorary degrees to all the Nisei who are living and they’ve made everybody part of the alumni association.
“But they have not given honorary degrees to those folks who have passed away and USC like football analogies so they marched down the political field but they’re fumbling on the one-yard line.”
Minami ended his remarks on a hopeful message to USC.
“Thanks to USC in advance for doing the right thing,” he stated.
APASS also honored the students who led the USC Nisei Diploma Project. The group worked to spread awareness of the issue within the student population by collecting signatures on petitions, hosting forums and garnering support from student organizations and the city of Los Angeles. They eventually made a formal request of the university’s honorary degree committee.
Speaking to The Rafu, the student leaders expressed some regret that the university would not be giving degrees to all of the Nisei, living and deceased.
“I think we put in a lot of work, and it’s taken USC a lot of years to even consider awarding honorary degrees to the Japanese Americans and Nisei students,” said senior Katherine Kouot. “For us, it’s kind of bittersweet. It’s terrible that they’re not recognizing the students that have already passed away by awarding posthumous degrees, but we are happy for those who will receive those awards and for the families who will see their loved ones walk across the stage after so many years.”
“There is a lot of multicultural support behind this issue, from all the different multicultural organizations on campus,” explained Kouot’s brother, Tony. “This has become a united front for social justice, This is a very important thing.”
“I would say that not all students on campus are aware of what posthumous degrees are, or that USC isn’t awarding them,” said Sally Kikuchi. “But I think overall, we’re glad that some people will be recognized, but we’re regretful that not everyone will receive the recognition they deserve.”
The students were buoyed by the fact that at least some of their efforts have proved successful through USC’s confidential decision process, though they clearly displayed an air of disappointment in the university’s denial of degrees for those who have passed away.
“We’re happy that it’s come to fruition this year,” said Katherine Kouot. “There’s no guarantee with the way submissions to the committee are handled confidentially, and for Albert and I, we’ll be graduating, so it’s a very special way to end out time here at ‘SC.”
Speaking after the dinner, Chiang said he would be contacting USC on the Nisei diploma issue, echoing the call for posthumous degrees.
“I think it’s shameful, USC is one of the premier institutions in the United States. They provide world class education, and they could make a powerful statement about the value of individuals, including the people who chose to make USC their home for an education.
“At the end of the day I believe USC is going to do the right thing. We just need at this moment in time a powerful statement that this is about morality, it’s about doing the right thing. It’s about saying we’ve committed a wrong in history, but we’re going to do the right thing. Because it reflects how we feel about every single student who walks onto the campus.”
Jon Kaji, who has led the movement to award degrees to all Nisei, said he was cautiously optimistic that the university would reverse course before the May 11 ceremony.
“As this continues to roll out, it’s hard for educated people not to support this,” said Kaji.