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Saturday, September 30, 2023

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Nu Alpha Chi student club photo from 1942 Del Sudoeste Yearbook. Nu Alpha Chi student club photo from 1942 Del Sudoeste Yearbook.

A Measure of Restitution

A special project seeks Japanese-American students interned during World War II.
By Tobin Vaughn

Executive Order 9066 is one of the most infamous security measures ever enacted by the United States government. Signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and dated Feb. 19, 1942, it authorized the military to relocate Japanese Americans, among others, from along the Pacific coast to inland internment camps.

A response to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the order kept approximately 120,000 ethnic Japanese people confined to the camps for the duration of the war. Most were Nisei or Sansei, second- or third-generation (respectively) Japanese Americans who were American citizens. Having given up homes and jobs, many also had their educations interrupted or abruptly ended.

An estimated 250 such students attended California State University institutions at the time, including San Diego State.  Recent legislation prompted the CSU to confer honorary degrees to those students through the California Nisei College Diploma Project. Now, the search is on to find them or their descendants in order to award the degrees.

Looking for clues at SDSU
Kristina Moller researching
Kristina Moller researches names of former students for the California Nisei College Diploma Project.

That’s where Kristina Moller comes in. She reviews campus records to identify former students who may qualify for the honorary degrees. The work isn’t easy. She has pored over thousands of transcripts and other documents looking for clues.

“Some (lost students) left prior to then, so it’s hard to know whether their education was interrupted by being sent to an internment camp or if they were actually done with their education and had no intention of pursuing it further,” she said.

“(If) they have a withdrawal date of January 1942, it gives me a pretty clear idea that they withdrew because of being sent to an internment camp.”

Robert Ray, head of Special Collections and the University Archives in the SDSU Library, provided names for Moller’s search. He looked through yearbooks from the early 1940s to turn up leads.

“I got the names from two photos in the 1940 and 1941 yearbooks of a Japanese-American (student) club,” Ray said. “It disbanded after 1941, of course.”

Archived information from the Aztec campus newspaper was also helpful.

“There were several articles when most (interned students) got on trains at (San Diego’s) Union Station and were sent off,” Ray said. “The quarterback of the football team (George Kita) was one.”

Where wrongs have been done

With the information Ray provided, Moller began searching through an estimated 50,000 documents. Fortunately, she says, SDSU recently converted all of its records from film reels and fiche to electronic files.

Still, “unlike an electronic text file where you can search for content within (a student's name, for example), I’ve been looking through groupings of pictures of data (which are unsearchable),” she said. “We had a little bit of a numbering system that gave me a good guess of where I could look to find students, but there was some scrolling through the files and searching.  Other campuses’ records offices are literally sifting through all this one by one.”

It would seem a daunting task, but it’s a job Moller said she appreciates.

“For me, personally, I think it’s very interesting,” she said. “There’s a part that’s a little bit tedious, but I’m highly analytical and I love methodical, detailed work, so I don’t mind going through the records.  I think the purpose behind this whole effort is very important.

“I’m really glad to be a part of it.  It’s a very meaningful, worthwhile project.  There’s a measure of restitution that our campus can be involved in for a great wrong, and there’s a big place in my heart for things to be restored where wrongs have been done.”

Sharing information

So far, Moller has come up with the names of 43 former San Diego State students she believes might qualify for honorary degrees. She is working with a campus committee to find them or their descendants and organize a special event to present the degrees later this semester. Others are involved, too.

“(SDSU professor) John Putman from the history department started to collaborate with people off campus - Susan Hasegawa, who is a history professor at San Diego City College as well as Gwen Momita, who is president of the Japanese-American Historical Society of San Diego," explained Moller.

“It’s this great joint effort of people from different perspectives who have all been sharing information.”