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Making Amends in California

California higher education officials this month are helping their state in its efforts to make amends with its Japanese-American citizens by awarding more than 200 honorary Bachelor of Humane Letters degrees to Japanese-American Cal State students “whose college careers were forcibly interrupted” by federal orders that they report to and live in internment camps during World War II.

 Starting this week and continuing through June 7, six campuses of the California State University system will hold special commencement ceremonies for the more than 200 Cal State students who were forced to report to internment camps, some during and some after the spring semester of 1942.

 Anti-Japanese sentiment permeated the American landscape after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military, prompting President Franklin Roosevelt to order the temporary internment of Japanese-American citizens, including the estimated 120,000 living in California. The students being honored by California officials were among those forced to leave one of the nine Cal State campuses in which they were enrolled. A small number joined the Army’s decorated all-Asian-American 442nd Infantry Regiment to help fight in the war.

 “This was a long time coming,” says Beverly DiDomenico of suburban Chicago. DiDomenico, whose mother and father were forced to leave San Diego State and California Polytechnic State universities, respectively. She will represent her ill mother and late father at ceremonies at San Jose State University set for May 29.

 “It’s actually righting a wrong,” says Colleen Bentley, director of special projects for the Cal State system. She said more than half the students (or their families) forced out of school by the federal order have been contacted or located. Efforts to find the others continue, she says, with school officials using archived school records to start and move forward. When trails have gone cold, some families have helped. DiDomenico, for example, learned that her father attended Cal Poly, as it is called, through a search of internment records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

 The Cal State honors are part of a broad effort required by legislation adopted last year by the California Assembly directing the state’s postsecondary institutions to award honorary bachelor’s degrees to those forced to leave their education as a result of Roosevelt’s order. The state’s community colleges began awarding degrees last year, followed by awards by some of the state’s larger colleges in December. Last September, the Cal State Board of Trustees approved granting the degrees. As more students or their families are located, Cal State officials expect this month’s programs to be complemented by similar ceremonies next year.

 While many former students still living (most are in their late 80s or early 90s) and the families of deceased students have responded favorably to the gesture, it has not been universally received by those whose young lives were disrupted by the internment orders.

 “Some people are turning us down outright,” says Bill Nance, assistant to the president of San Jose State. He said many students have never gotten over the humiliation and damage to their families inflicted by the internment orders. Others, he says, are excited over this offer of reconciliation, he says, after hearing school officials explain the background of the gestures. He noted the campuses affected at the time were not in support of the internment orders, which also caused many families to lose their property, homes and businesses.

 The schools awarding of the honorary degrees plan an array of activities around the special occasion, says Bentley. San Jose State plans a breakfast reception for the nearly 20 honorees expected to attend its commencement ceremonies. California State University, Dominguez Hills, hosting Nisei (Japanese-American) students from the Los Angeles area, plans a reception honoring the World War II students. California State University at Fresno, plans a luncheon and special ceremony for six alumni and the family representatives of 21 more students.

 Other Cal State system schools involved in the degree awards program are San Francisco State, San Diego State and California Polytechnic State universities.

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