Forgotten no more

Leslie Ridgeway • March 10, 2022
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Project led by alums Jenna Edzant, Mirelle Raza and Sara Zollner focuses on Nisei Trojans denied transcripts after World War II

Jenna Edzant, Sara Zollner, and Mirelle Raza (left to right) collaborated on a project focusing on Nisei Japanese-American students at USC who were denied their transcripts after WWII.

When Jenna Edzant, Mirelle Raza and Sara Zollner enrolled in “Law, Society and the University: The History of Discrimination” at the USC Gould School of Law in 2020, they expected to learn in depth about past inequities, but not to develop a project that aligned with a university decision to right a wrong from more than 70 years ago.

The university announced in mid-October that USC would award posthumous honorary degrees and President Carol Folt would make a public apology to the 121 Japanese-American USC students who were swept up in federal efforts during World War II to remove or relocate into camps people with Japanese ancestry. These actions will take place at the annual USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association’s gala in April 2022.

Edzant, Raza and Zollner, all 2021 graduates, worked together on “Forgotten Trojans: USC Nisei Story,” a historical record of the refusal of USC officials to allow Japanese-American students enrolled in the early 1940s to obtain their transcripts. Many of the students managed to enroll in different universities, but none earned their degrees from USC as hoped. The Gould students later heard from Jon Kaji (BA 1976), former president of the Asian Pacific Alumni Association, whom they had interviewed for “Forgotten Trojans,” that a senior advisor to Folt had reviewed the website they created prior to the decision.  An article in the Los Angeles Times highlighted the students’ research project.

“I was a little in shock,” says Edzant, now a fellow at Greene, Broillet & Wheeler LLP in El Segundo, Calif. “The university making a formal apology was completely unexpected. It felt like the university turned a corner. It made me proud to be a Trojan.”

Raza applauded the decision for helping bring closure to the “Sansei,” children of the students from the generation known in Japanese culture as “Nisei.”

“Their parents were die-hard USC fans and I know it means a lot to them,” says Raza, now working as a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice’s Special Prosecution Section in San Francisco. “It’s a positive sign that the President and Board of Trustees are listening to community leaders. I’m hopeful this is the first of many decisions to heal this institution.”

Class provides inspiration to develop “Forgotten Trojans”

“Law, Society and the University,” offered for the first time last year and taught by professors Sam Erman and Ariela Gross, was developed as part of an overall effort throughout higher education to acknowledge and deal with past issues of discrimination and racism. The course was aimed at teaching students how to make a historical argument, and how that is different from legal argument and advocacy.

Edzant, Raza and Zollner initially considered looking into past USC President Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, whose support of eugenics, antisemitism and racism were protested for years by critics. That research led them to the Nisei Trojans and Jon Kaji, who connected them with families of the students who had been denied their transcripts by WWII-era USC officials who contended at the time that assisting the Japanese-Americans in any way was giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

As they dug deeper, the three students realized the issue was very much relevant in the present, as the Sansei continued to fight after 15 years for public recognition of the wrong done to their parents.

“Forgotten Trojans” wound up with a healthy dose of advocacy for redress. As Edzant puts it, “We are going to be attorneys. What’s the point of finding out about all this if we can’t do something about it?”

Zollner, now a Justice Catalyst Fellow at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, says the oral interviews posted on the website made the case for an apology effectively.

“The oral interviews of the families of people who didn’t get degrees (from USC) were the most poignant part of the research project,” Zollner says. “Our goal was to amplify their voices, and we hope their stories are centered (by the university).”

The students praised Erman and Gross for respecting their decision to include advocacy in “Forgotten Trojans,” helping them narrow the focus of their research, putting them in touch with the USC Archives and helping them understand how the USC Board of Trustees operates.

Edzant, Raza and Zollner value their new association with Kaji, now advocating for the name of his father Bruce, a USC alum and founder of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, to be placed on USC’s International Studies building. “Jon [Kaji] is from a long line of community leaders,” says Raza. ”It’s a great gift to be able to learn from him. The Trojan Network continues to amaze me.”

Gross calls the decision to confer the posthumous degrees and publicly apologize “a nice surprise,” and Erman hopes USC will continue to examine its past with healing in mind.

“Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come, that USC will learn about its history in ways that are productive and make the university stronger,” he says.

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