Student tries to locate WWII internees

Fresno State offers honorary degrees.

March 20, 2010 

Tiffany Polfer knows all the names but few of the faces.

For months, she has sifted through time to search for Japanese-American students swept off the Fresno State campus and into World War II-era internment camps. The university is one of six California State University campuses now granting honorary degrees to those students whose academic careers were interrupted.

Polfer, a Fresno State master's degree candidate in history, is part of a team of sleuths looking for them or their family members to attend a May 20 ceremony.

Helping find those students so they can receive degrees is "completing the picture," said Polfer, 24, of Fresno.

Her detective work is part of a larger push in higher education circles to address an historic injustice. In the aftermath of the 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing, a presidential order sent roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Some were college students.

Assembly Member Warren Furutani, D-South Los Angeles County, recently sponsored legislation that called on the CSU, University of California and California Community College systems to honor former students -- now likely in their 80s.

Many public colleges and universities have started the process; Fresno State awarded its first honorary degree in December to John Hiroshi Otomo of Selma.

Colleen Bentley, director of special projects in the CSU chancellor's office, said officials have identified about 250 Japanese-American students enrolled at Fresno, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, San Luis Obispo or Pomona in 1941-42.

Ceremonies honoring those students are being planned this spring. CSU Dominguez Hills may host a ceremony for Los Angeles-area students unable to travel.

Officials are working closely with Japanese-American community organizations to locate students, she said. About half the students, or their families, have been located so far.

At Fresno State, officials started with a list of 87 names drawn from enrollment records, college yearbooks, the campus newspaper and other sources.

Paul Oliaro, vice president for students affairs at Fresno State, said about 25 students have been contacted. And "every day, we get new leads," he said.

That is Polfer's challenge. She has been combing through old marriage records, newspaper obituaries, city directories and 21st century Web sites to track down potential honorees.

Some are easier to find because they are relatives of other students on the list. So, "if you find one of them, odds are you can find the other one," Polfer said.

She turns over potential addresses and telephone numbers to Oliaro's office.

Polfer hopes to attend the May 20 ceremony, partly to see the faces of those 1940s-era students. For now, she said, the former students she seeks "are just names on a page."

The reporter can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6312.

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