The Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund began in 1976 with a group of nisei in New England brought together by Nobu Hibino of Portland, Connecticut. Hibino graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco, and attended the University of California, Berkeley. World War II and the mass removal and confinement interrupted her education just short of her degree in the second semester of her senior year. Hibino and her family were held at Tanforan assembly center and then at Topaz concentration camp. In the summer of 1943, the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council (NJASRC) hired Hibino to work in its main office in Philadelphia. Through the NJASRC, Hibino was able to complete her education at Boston University and received her degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
After attending a conference on nisei retirement held in San Francisco by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Hibino decided to organize a similar gathering for nisei in New England. She searched through telephone directories for Japanese American names, and a few months after the San Francisco conference held a New England Nisei Retirement Conference at Boston University. Twenty-four nisei attended, including Lafayette Noda who, like Hibino, was a former employee of the NJASRC during the war. The group decided to meet periodically for picnics and Japanese New Year's celebrations, and they called themselves the New England Nisei. In the course of their socializing, they realized that many of them shared the experience of completing and attending college during the war under the auspices of the NJASRC. That recognition led to the idea of establishing a scholarship fund to combat racism by promoting student access to higher education.
Lafayette Noda was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, when the war halted his education. He was confined at Heart Mountain and later, at
Amache concentration camp. Noda gained admittance to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1944 to complete his degree, and while there he volunteered with the NJASRC, although he received no assistance from them. Still, Noda's involvement with the NJASRC prompted him to actively support the proposal for a student scholarship fund.
The New England Nisei, after months of planning, launched the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund (NSRCF) in 1980. The fund, the nisei believed, emerged from their Japanese value of ongaeshi or reciprocity and the repayment of a debt. It was an expression of gratitude for the help provided them during World War II by assisting students who, like them, were casualties of war. The Nisei Student Fund's purpose is expressed in its slogan, “Extending Helping Hands Once Offered to Us.” Appropriately, in June 1982, the fund's first recipient of a monetary award was the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, the body that helped organize the NJASRC.
Thereafter, the Nisei Student Fund decided to give scholarships to poor and underprivileged Asian American and Pacific Islander students “to aid and uplift” them. They focused on Southeast Asian Americans who were refugees of war, like Japanese Americans during World War II. With scholarships, the Nisei Student Fund encourages Southeast Asian American high school students to continue their education. Nobu Hibino explained, “It's the same because we were forced to leave our homes. They were forced to leave for political reasons” (Ito, 144). However, Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens and most were fluent in English, while Southeast Asians were refugees and many of them faced cultural and linguistic barriers. But both student groups experienced the trauma of war, and shared a hope to improve their lives through education.
A recipient of the Nisei Student Fund's scholarship, Seng Suy, exemplified those convergences. Suy, from Philadelphia, won the scholarship in 1990. Suy described his life in Cambodia where he was forced to labor and starvation was a daily concern. In the United States, poverty continued to haunt Suy and his family. As he described it, “All my life I grew up knowing only poverty. I want to see life beyond poverty. The only way I can beat poverty is through a good education” (Ito, 146).
For Cambodian American Leark Vath, a 1993 award recipient who attended the University of California, San Diego, the Nisei Student Fund's scholarship enabled him to continue into college. A graduate of Modesto High School in California, Vath testified: “The award really inspired me to go to college and gave me a new found sense for humanity because since I came to the U.S., I had always thought of this country as nothing but a bunch of greedy people. I know this society is solely based on money, but not I know there are people out there that really care for people like me” (Ito, 147).
Since 1983, the Nisei Student Fund has awarded more than $588,800 to 608 students, and its endowment has grown to $1.1 million. Scholarships in 2012 are now limited to high school students with at least one parent who was born in Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Ito, Leslie A. “Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund.” In Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II. Edited by Gary Y. Okihiro, 140–51. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.
Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund. http://www.nsrcfund.org .