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Casey Christie / The Californian

Mary Higashi, 87, center, flips her tassle from one side to the other as she receives an honorary degree from Bakersfield College during their annual graduation ceremony Friday evening at Memorial Stadium. Higashi was denied a college education during WWII and was forced to an internment camp with her family.

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Kim Flenniken, and her guide dog, Junior, along with her friend, Su Htun, get ready to graduate from Bakersfield College Friday evening.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Around 400 Bakersfield College students received their diplomas Friday night during their annual commencement exercises including Andrew Varga, center.

Mary Higashi was attending Bakersfield Junior College when she heard about the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7 1941.

"I was humiliated -- to think Japan had attacked," said the 87-year-old Japanese American who was born and raised in Bakersfield. "I didn't want to go to school, but my father insisted we get our education. 'You didn't start the war,' he said."

So she did, studying business education and accounting. She even learned how to use a bow and arrow in archery class. Faculty and friends treated her with respect, she said.

Then in early 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that called for roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans into camps against their will and incarcerated during the war.

On May 9, 1942, a day Higashi said she would never forget, she and her family were evacuated, ending her college career about a month away from graduation.

"I would have been the first in my family to graduate from Bakersfield College," she said. "It was very upsetting to me being that I was a citizen. How could they put us away like that? We were a torn family."

On Friday during Bakersfield College's graduation ceremony, nearly 70 years later, Higashi got something she thought she'd never get -- a diploma from BC.

"This is wonderful," she said. "It brings closure."


Higashi's father came to Bakersfield from Japan in 1914, her mother in 1921. She was born at Mercy Hospital, and is one of seven children.

The family was evacuated to a camp in Arizona, except for her father, who was taken by the FBI because he was a local leader in the Japanese community, she said.

Higashi remembers entering the camp in just the second day opened: There were rows of barracks with barbed wire surrounding them. Military police had guns pointed at them.

"That was the introduction for us," she said. "The camp was just terrible."

Inside, everyone crammed into an apartment with no bathroom. Showers and toilets had no curtains or partitions.

Everyone ate in a mess hall. The cook made mutton and curry for about 300. And there was nothing to do, she said.

In all, she was there three years. She moved back to Bakersfield in 1946, where she had her first of three children. Then she moved to San Pedro where she's lived the last 60 years. Relatives still live in Bakersfield.

She's worked for decades in the state unemployment office, rising in rank to a manager.


Assembly Bill 37 was signed into law in October. It requires state community colleges, California state universities and University of California campuses to honor those forced to leave post-secondary studies because of the federal order.

More than 1,200 affected students were attending 44 junior or community colleges before the order was given, according to the California Nisei College Diploma Project.

State officials said the program is a way to make right of wrongs. For those who are no longer alive, relatives can collect honorary degrees on their behalf.

George Tatsuno on Friday represented his father of the same name, who died in 2001.

Tatsuno, a local chiropractor, said his father, a citizen, was denied his constitutional rights when he was evacuated. He chocked back tears in describing how his father told of the experience.

"I'm sure he'd be very proud and honored," Tatsuno said. "It's a long time coming, that's for sure. But I'm happy to represent him today."


Friday night, 375 graduates received diplomas at BC's Memorial Stadium. Twenty-nine Nesei Project honorees were listed on Bakersfield College's commencement program.

Families of four honorees attended. However, Higashi was the sole person wearing a bright red graduation gown. About 20 of her family members attended the ceremony to celebrate, including her daughters Paula Higashi, from Elk Grove, and Elizabeth Higashi, who lives in Chicago, and brother Robert Kinoshita, a 70-year-old Bakersfield resident.

The honorees were given their original transcripts from the 1940s. Family members chuckled looking over Higashi's grades, especially the C she got in piano class. Mary Higashi plays the oregon piano for her local church, Elizabeth Higashi said.

Graduation speakers spoke of overcoming obstacles to reach their goal of receiving diplomas. Mary Higashi's name was called, and the crowd roared. Higashi smiled.

"We're just excited for her," Robert Kinoshita said.