Paying It Forward

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Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund awards scholarships in Santa Ana.

Students receive scholarships from the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund on June 16 at the Delhi Center in Santa Ana.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

SANTA ANA — Parents and friends cheered as 30 Southeast Asian American high school students were awarded scholarships from the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund in a ceremony on June 16 in Santa Ana.

The scholarships are the latest to be awarded by the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, a national scholarship program created by Nisei who were interned during World War II. As high school and college students, their incarceration abruptly halted their schooling.

Concerned educators and organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, YMCA and YWCA, established the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council to help the students, by securing paperwork and often, by raising monies for the tuition. The Council helped approximately 5,000 students leave the internment camps and complete their college educations.

In 1980, a small group of the former students living in New England established the fund in gratitude to the Council and dedicated their mission to helping Southeast Asian students because the plight of college-aged refugees from Vietnam reminded the Nisei of their own experiences.

Teresa Tran (second from right) was the recipient of the Shim and Chiyo Hiraoka Scholarship. She is pictured with her father Huy Tran, and the Hiraokas’ daughter, Shelley Kurata, and granddaughter, Courtney Kurata.

The awards ranged from $2,000 to $1,000. Since its inception the fund has awarded over $1 million in scholarships.

Jean Hibino, executive secretary of the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, is the daughter of two of its founders, Nobu and Yosh Hibino.

Jean Hibino, executive secretary of Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, thanked the Cambodian Family Community Center and the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Alliance for helping to coordinate the scholarships and identify students. Vattana Peong, executive director of the Cambodian Family Community Center, served as emcee for the program.

Hibino’s parents, Nobu (Kumekawa) and Yosh Hibino, were among the original founders of the scholarship fund. She noted that the group started with just $135.

“None of the founding Nisei are with us anymore, but I think they would be really proud. Our mission is to commemorate the past and educate the future,” Hibino said.

Teresa Tran, who will be attending UC Irvine in the fall, received a $2,000 scholarship named in honor of Shim and Chiyo Hiraoka. She said she plans to study biology or medicine.

“It’s so exciting, there’s a way for me to pay for my tuition and books,” Tran said. “It helps my parents pay for college.”

Students confined to the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah participate in their high school graduation ceremony in 1943. (Courtesy Jean Hibino/Topaz Museum)

The Hiraokas’ daughter, Shelley Kurata, was able to personally congratulate Tran. A Quaker friend of her mother had helped to establish the fund in her parents’ name. Roger “Shim” Shimaoka was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and met Chiyo at the Gila River camp in Arizona, where she worked as a secretary in the legal office.

“You can’t even put it in words what it means. It’s really emotional. My parents are no longer here and through this they live, their legacy continues,” Kurata said.

Rafu Shimpo photos by GWEN MURANAKA

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