In June of 1945, I had just graduated from Topaz High School in the third graduating high school class of that Utah internment center. I went on to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Perhaps because I didn’t have to make a major effort to search for a college or seek and apply for scholarship aid, I never realized the extent of the commitment put forth by the volunteer staff at the American Friends Service Committee headquarters in Philadelphia. I recently learned that these dedicated people, along with heads of colleges, universities, and the YMCAs and YWCAs, did much more in forming the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council in 1942 than just getting the Nisei students to college.
In broad terms, the Council raised funds from national foundations, organizations, and institutions; identified, contacted and organized universities and colleges who would accept evacuee students; and provided these colleges with funds for scholarships to the evacuee students. They networked and identified potential college students in each of the camps, and they matched students with appropriate schools. They secured proof of community acceptance once the colleges accepted the Nisei students. They even made all the arrangements to clear each one of us with the FBI so that we could leave the camps (I didn’t know that). I also learned of the desperate emergency Council meetings in New York City to raise additional foundation funds so that the last of the class of 1945 could have some financial aid.
Over 3,500 Nisei received aid, papers, or information directly from the colleges we were to attend. Perhaps if you are Nisei and like me, you assumed it was the schools that were the catalyst in relocating the students. But it was the NJASRC that moved the mountains. I now know why it wasn’t by accident that five evacuee students entered Bates College in that far off northeastern corner of New England.
I am glad that today, the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund (NSRCF) has been formed to keep alive that spirit of helping. I am glad that my teachers at Topaz High School, who helped me maintain my belief in the redemptive nature of our American society, can now be honored by dedicating funds in their names. Just as I continue to honor my parents, in that amazing and indomitable generation of Issei who made it all possible, through a NSRCF Named Scholarship.
There are many deserving organizations and causes calling upon each of us for monetary contributions. In my view, among the most compelling is the NSRCF. Let me briefly share my reasons for this view.
As you know, during the dark period of 1942, when Nisei and their Issei parents residing in the Pacific Coast states were uprooted and confined in barbed-wire camps, concerned fellow Americans — most notably the Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee —established the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which ultimately made it possible for an estimated 4,000 Nisei inmates to be released from these camps to enroll in colleges throughout the United States (outside the Pacific Coast states), often arranging for scholarships to sustain continued enrollment. I was among those to benefit from this program.
As a concrete expression of gratitude, some 18 years ago, a small, dedicated group of Nisei up in New England formed the NSRCF to provide financial scholarships for needy college students within the Southeast Asian refugee communities in the United States. Beyond our cultural sense of obligation or indebtedness (known as “giri”), the NSRC Fund program has unique aspects which appeal to me: it operates on a bare bones budget with its “office” in a private home; its activities are oriented toward service, not toward inflating itself; and it unselfishly looks beyond its own ethnic community and seeks to help other Asian groups who otherwise may be overlooked. This reflects the true spirit of giving. I hope you will agree with me and join with me by participating in this most worthy program.
Recently, I revisited Topaz, Utah. Now, it is a registered historic site, marked by a monument of stone and concrete, but very little remains other than concrete foundation slabs, rubble, and the network of streets surrounded by miles of flat desert covered with scrub brush. It was there that I graduated from Topaz High School in June 1943. Having grown up in Berkeley, I had my heart set on going to the University of California, Berkeley after graduation from high school. But in my junior year I found myself in a makeshift classroom in Topaz wondering what the future held. A dedicated group of teachers did their very best to provide an education, despite the lack of classroom furniture and equipment, books, and supplies. They even explored with me the possibilities of leaving camp for college but that seemed a far off dream. This dream became a reality, however, when I received notification in August of 1943 that I had been accepted by Vassar College with a scholarship and had been cleared to leave camp early in September. It was to the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) that I was indebted for this amazing unexpected good fortune.
In the Spring of 1942, concerned citizens and organizations of diverse religions and political persuasions had mobilized and worked together to try to do something to help relocate Nisei college students interned in camps. They moved quickly and did the seemingly impossible, cutting through the red tape, and by May 29, 1942, the NJASRC was in place. The first student was relocated on July 4, 1942 and, when the office closed on June 30, 1946, the records of close to 4000 students processed were on file. The NJASRC took care of all clearances and documents necessary to enable students to leave camp. They obtained assurances of their welcome from both the communities and colleges involved, arranged all financial matters directly with the colleges/ universities, raised money, and provided colleges with the funds for scholarships to give to the evacuee students.
The success of this student relocation program helped pave the way for all evacuee families to relocate out of the camps. It is difficult to assess the impact of the NJASRC program on the Japanese Americans as we are today. It is immeasurable. But the work they did and their concern for my future has deeply affected the course of my life.
In June of last year, leaders and local supporters of the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund held the 15th annual awards ceremony in New York City in order to bestow scholarships on a group of 13 highly deserving Southeast Asian refugee graduates from several area high schools. As I sat there watching the radiant faces of the youthful awardees, I found myself being transported back in time to the desert prison camp of Gila and recalling the joy I myself had felt a half century back, on being told that, thanks to the resolute efforts of countless dedicated Caucasians who cared, I had received a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. In that audience filled with proud family members and friends of those being honored, I sat with my heart full. As I watched some of the now legendary leaders of the NSRCF, I felt immense pride in the caliber of our own extraordinary Nisei, like Nobu Hibino and Lafayette Noda, who, through decades of hard work and sacrifice, have kept alive that legacy of giving and caring, exemplifying — like those wartime benefactors who had once come to our rescue — the finer ideals of mankind.
In 1980, a handful of New England Nisei, including the Hibinos and the Nodas, established the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund. They did so in a spirit of genuine thankfulness to the dedicated individuals and organizations that had come together in the critical early months of 1942 to form the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. In particular, the Quakers, whose Philadelphia headquarters became the Student Relocation Council’s command center, with their gentle persuasion and often personal influence, played an important part in prying open often reluctant academic doors, and in gaining assurances from area communities that Nisei students would be welcomed. That the Council succeeded yearly in raising sufficient scholarship funds by influencing foundations and by reaching out to organizations and individuals similarly dedicated to the finer ideals of democracy, represented a remarkable achievement, considering the atmosphere of wartime hatred and distrust in which they were operating.
The NSRCF was thus meant to be a repayment of a debt and a permanent tribute to those tireless visionaries who had done much to restore the badly shattered faith of evacuees in their fellow white Americans. Perhaps no single humanitarian project did as much to help pave the way towards a future rich with all the opportunities, once denied to us, that we enjoy today. Our Issei parents, who passed on to us that strong sense of giri, would thus expect us not to forget our repayment of that kindness, even if it is just a token of our deep appreciation.
As others have already done, let us make the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund a beneficiary in our wills, so that even after we are gone, the Fund will live on, doing good, dispensing hope — reaching out and giving educational opportunities to those displaced and deserving, as was once given to the Nisei.