Fresno State will hold a special Commencement ceremony and luncheon on May 20, 2010, for Japanese-Americans receiving honorary degrees and their families. The event will begin at 11 a.m. in the Satellite Student Union on campus.

California State University, Fresno is trying to locate 87 Japanese-American former students who may be eligible for honorary degrees because their college studies were interrupted by Executive Order 9066, issued Feb. 19, 1942.

The order, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, sent thousands of Japanese-Americans to prison camps, hundreds of whom were residents of the San Joaquin Valley.

In September 2009, California State University trustees approved participation in the Nisei College Diploma Project, agreeing to recognize Japanese-American students at CSU campuses in 1941 and ’42 with honorary degrees.

Three months later, Fresno State awarded the first such honorary degree from a CSU campus to John Hiroshi Otomo of Selma. Now, the university is trying to find classmates (or their relatives, if the former students are deceased) to confer additional honorary degrees.

“We have the names, but we need addresses and phone numbers, so we can invite the alumni or their families to a special ceremony on campus May 20,” said Dr. Paul Oliaro, vice president for Student Affairs at Fresno State who is heading up the university’s Nisei Diploma Project effort.

William Secrest, local-history librarian at the Fresno County Library, and Tiffany Polfer, a master’s degree candidate in history, helped develop the list. They checked college yearbooks, articles in The Collegian campus newspaper and other sources for names.

Their information was confirmed through microfilmed enrollment records under the supervision of Vivian Franco, Fresno State’s director of admissions, records and evaluations. Because those records are not computerized, the task of validating names from Secrest and Polfer’s research required manually poring over alphabetical lists, which yielded the 87 names.

Oliaro said, “We want to make certain that as many of our eligible alumni as possible can join us for this historic day. However, CSU concerns about privacy laws make locating these former students a challenge.”

“We hope people who know of a Japanese-American student at Fresno State in 1941 or ’42 will share with us any contact information from the past or present so we can follow up,” Oliaro added.

Fresno State also is partnering with the Japanese American Citizens League regional office in Fresno, Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco and other organizations to publicize its search.

The university encourages people with contact information for Japanese-American alumni eligible for honorary degrees to fill out the questionnaire online or by contacting Oliaro at 559.278.2541 or

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