In the spring of 1942, following Pearl Harbor and the subsequent uprooting of all persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast to internment camps, educators became concerned about the future of many Nisei students then enrolled in colleges and universities. Efforts to immediately transfer these students to institutions outside the restricted areas on the West Coast were led by the YMCA-YWCA, the Pacific College Association, and college presidents such as University of California’s Robert Gordon Sproul, and University of Washington’s Lee Paul Sieg. A Student Relocation Council, funded by the National YMCA-YWCA, was organized in Berkeley, California, on March 21, 1942, and met weekly during April and May.
Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt has been credited with playing a large role in the formation of a national student relocation council. College university presidents had urged Governor Olson of California to address the needs of Nisei students, and though he wrote to President Roosevelt for help, it was Mrs. Roosevelt who became engaged with the issue. Concerned that the evacuees not suffer the fate of Native Americans, she was anxious to demonstrate to them that the internment was intended as a temporary situation. Mrs. Roosevelt discussed the matter with Clarence Pickett, a close Quaker friend, who subsequently proposed to John McCoy, Assistant Secretary of War, and to Milton Eisenhower, the first national director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), that the college students in camp be relocated. He suggested a two-fold purpose in his proposal: to return the students to schools and, through their successful integration within college communities, to pave the way for families to successfully leave the camps.
John McCoy requested that the Quakers assume leadership for the project, a request accepted by the American Friends Service Committee. The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council was formed on May 29, 1942, in Chicago. Offices were quickly established in Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. When funds became scarce in March 1943, all offices were consolidated in Philadelphia.
The NJASRC was staffed primarily by volunteers. Its members included college presidents and deans, college association officers, representatives of leading Protestant churches, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, and the student YMCA-YWCA. Financial support for the enterprise came from many non-government sources: churches of various Protestant denominations, the World Student Service Fund, colleges and universities, and private donations. The most difficult task for the Council was to find funding for Buddhists and other non-Christians. A few denominations, notably Baptists, Presbyterians, and the Congregationalists helped these students but their principal support came from the World Student Service Fund.
All college-bound students in camp faced huge administrative hurdles as they sought to gain their leaves. They needed clearances from the War Relocation Authority, the FBI, and, if the student had ever visited Japan, from the War Department. The NJASRC was charged with the responsibility of moving students from the camps to colleges. Its duties included:
The first student selected for relocation was Harvey Itano of Sacramento, California. Itano’s departure from internment camp at Tule Lake for St. Louis Medical School on July 4, 1942 marked the beginning of the student relocation process. Ultimately, the NJASRC processed more than 4,600 applications. In the process it struggled with mountains of paperwork and limited funds. It is estimated that before a student was cleared to leave, the Council staff had to write an average of 25 letters, contacting the student, the government, the school, and the host community. By the time they ceased operations on June 30, 1946, the NJASRC held the records of 3,613 Nisei and a list of 680 institutions that accepted them.
The existence of the NJASRC and the critical role it played assisting the Nisei students during their World War II internment remains largely unknown.
Its work was unquestionably key to the subsequent successful reintroduction of Japanese Americans into the mainstream of American society after the war. The Council encouraged students to apply to college, processed their clearances, helped find financial support, paved the way for their arrival on campus, and monitored their well being while they were there. We must never forget the many justice-minded, farsighted individuals who, in 1942, had the courage to support the young Japanese American students and the faith to believe in them. We honor their legacy.