Community colleges aim to honor WWII internees

California's community colleges have joined the movement to award honorary degrees to Japanese-American students forced into internment camps during World War II.

Locally, officials are searching for students who attended Fresno City College or Reedley College in 1941 or 1942. About 30 students of Japanese ancestry were enrolled at Reedley College at the time; the number at City College is unknown.

Deborah Ikeda, vice president of instruction and student services at the State Center Community College District, said officials haven't been able to find City College records before 1948. But they have a list of names from Reedley College.

Authorities hope to find students -- now likely in their 80s -- or family members to award the degrees. Relatives can accept a degree on behalf of a former student who has died.

Ikeda said many students may have completed course work only to be denied the chance to participate in graduation ceremonies. The district will offer that opportunity -- and the honorary degrees -- later this year.

"That is the intention: to let people march and go through graduation," Ikeda said.

The efforts of California's community college system are part of a widespread push in higher education circles to award honorary degrees to students whose studies were interrupted by the internment order. Several community college campuses have recognized that generation of Japanese-American students over the past few years.

Recently, some University of California and California State University campuses have awarded degrees. Fresno State handed out its first in December.

Assembly Member Warren Furutani, D-South Los Angeles County, sponsored legislation -- signed by the governor in October -- calling on the three public higher education systems to recognize students.

In February 1942 -- in the wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order permitting the military to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast and imprison them in camps with barbed wire and armed guards. College students were forced to abandon their studies.

According to the California Nisei College Diploma Project, more than 1,200 students of Japanese ancestry were attending 44 junior or community colleges just before the internment order.

In addition to City College and Reedley, the College of the Sequoias in Visalia was open at the time. COS officials say they will participate in the honorary degree program; no estimate of potential honorees was available.

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