During World War II, an estimated 120 Japanese American students attended USC. But in the wake of Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese Americans were forcefully relocated to Japanese internment camps across the country.
Like all other colleges and universities on the West coast, USC withdrew its Nisei, Japanese American, students from the university and sent them to internment camps, according to From Concentration Camp to Campus: Japanese American Students and World War II by Allan W. Austin, a book written about Japanese students experiences during World War II.
Today, eight USC students have come together in hopes of making up for this injustice.
Starting last year, an entirely student-run coalition was formed to complete the Nisei Diploma Project at USC.
“It is long overdue to give recognition to students affected from Nisei camps,” said Tracy Yen, a sophomore majoring in international relations and one of the project’s organizers.
The project’s goal is to have USC issue honorary degrees to Japanese Americans who were forced to terminate their education at USC and relocate to internment camps.
In 2008, Assemblyman Warren Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County) passed Assembly Bill 37, calling for public institutions to issue degrees to those Japanese American students who were forced to abandon their college education in 1942.
Many University of Californias, California State Universities and community colleges have already issued these honorary diplomas, but USC is yet to do so.
“By issuing these honorary degrees, USC can take the final step in recognizing our fellow Trojans’ education,” said Sally Kikuchi, a first year master student studying public administration and a project organizer.
Yen said she believes this is her opportunity to aid former Trojans.
“These people were college students like us who saw the importance of education,” Yen said. “Taking it from them was wrong and I feel that as a student that can be involved in this, I should help out as much as I can.”
The student group is currently asking members of the USC community to sign a petition stating they “support the initiative to grant honorary degrees to our fellow Trojans.” The petition started in late February and is expected to remain open until midnight Thursday, March 24.
As of March 21, more than 1,136 USC alumni, students, faculty and staff had already signed the petition.
The organization is not searching for a specific number of signatures, but instead hopes to obtain as many signatures as possible, according to Kikuchi.
The petition was established mainly to show that diverse groups within the USC community support the effort proposed by the student group.
“The petition is taking place to show President C. L. Max Nikias and the Board of Trustees that there is a heavy desire to want to recognize students who were unable to receive their education during World War II,” said Kevin Cheung, a senior majoring in business administration, who is in charge of the Nisei Diploma Project. “It shows that as members of the Trojan family we take of each other.”
The student group plans to deliver the petition, a personal letter expressing the importance of providing these diplomas and several letters from on campus organizations supporting the cause, to Nikias’ʼ office Friday.
The project’s organizers have not spoken to President Nikias directly, but Cheung says the group is willing to speak with him on the matter if he allows it.
“There have been previous attempts, but with our current depth of knowledge about the issue, the new bill and a fresh start with newly inaugurated President Nikias, it is the perfect time to start the project,” Cheung said.
If the project is successful, more than 120 Japanese American USC students who were affected will receive their honorary diplomas.
“The success of this project will demonstrate USC’s commitment to validating every student’s education,” Kikuchi said. “It will demonstrate to those outside of USC that our school truly takes the steps to address important issues that have a lasting impact on past, current and future generations.”
It has been nearly 70 years since the Japanese American internment camps, but the projects’ organizers feel the issue is as important now as it was then.
“We can show that even if it takes this long we will do the right thing and support each other,” Cheung said.