Scholarships Honor World War II Efforts to Send Nisei from Internment Camps to College
By Katharine Webster
A dozen incoming first-year students have been awarded scholarships by the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund, which helps students of Southeast Asian ancestry pay for college.
The students come from around Massachusetts and plan on majoring in nursing, environmental science, criminal justice, business and more. Nearly all are first-generation college students, and many are from Lowell, which has the second-largest Cambodian-American community in the nation.
Kennis Mor, who grew up in Lowell, chose UMass Lowell for his business studies because his grandparents asked him to help finish Wat Khmer Samaki Santikaram, a traditional Cambodian Buddhist temple in Chelmsford. Mor is the temple’s volunteer business manager, and he also volunteers for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association and other community organizations. He says he’s doing all he can to save traditional Khmer culture.
“I can’t just leave Lowell,” he says. “My grandparents left me a legacy to fulfill.”
The scholarship fund is itself a legacy. It honors efforts during World War II by the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council to get college-age, second-generation Japanese-Americans, known as Nisei, released from internment camps so they could complete their college educations.
Nearly 5,000 Nisei were placed in more than 500 colleges and universities and given scholarships by the council, which was led by the American Friends Service Committee with help from the YMCA, the YWCA and other church and community groups.
In 1980, some of those Nisei met in New Hampshire and decided to start the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund to help college-age refugees of the Vietnam War, who had similar experiences of being uprooted, living in refugee camps and having their studies interrupted.
Each year, the fund solicits applicants in a different region of the country. This year, 20 named scholarships for $2,000 apiece and 15 general $1,000 scholarships were awarded to a total of 35 students from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The scholarships are intended to help boost the rate of Southeast Asian-Americans who go to college, says Assoc. Prof. of Education Phitsamay Uy, who is on the Nisei Fund’s national board and served as the local chairwoman for this year’s awards committee. High poverty rates among Southeast Asian-American immigrant communities make it especially challenging for students to complete their college educations, she says.
Patrick Pang won the Hiroko Fujita and Paul Fukami Scholarship to study exercise physiology. Pang, an honors student from Peabody, also will compete for the men’s track and field team. Earlier this summer, he took second place in the national finals for the boys’ 6K hammer throw.
A track and field injury during in his freshman year of high school sent him to physical therapy, where his therapist’s positive attitude and care for his all-around mental and physical health inspired his career choice, he says. He chose UMass Lowell for its integrated path to a doctoral degree and the scholarships he was offered.
“I also wanted a large school I could walk around and explore,” he says.
Sivheng Kim and Cristina Mol, both of Lowell, were accepted into the highly competitive nursing program. Both were awarded named $2,000 scholarships from the Nisei Fund, and both will live at home.
Kim, who like Pang was born in Cambodia and struggled to learn English in the United States, plans to become a nurse practitioner so she can help people like her adored grandmother, who died of a heart attack in rural Cambodia.
“To this day, I burn with some frustration because my grandmother could not get the best medical treatment she deserved, all because we lived in a Third World country. This is why I want to do everything I can to make a difference in the world, so that people like my grandmother can have access to quality health care no matter where they live,” she wrote in her application.
Mol says she was an indifferent student as a child, but decided in high school to become a pediatric nurse with encouragement from advisers at Lowell High.
“A lot of people doubted me, because UMass Lowell nursing is tough to get into – and I definitely wanted to prove them wrong,” she says.
Mol already feels welcome on campus, thanks to the Cambodian American Student Association. Older friends invited her to get involved, first as a traditional coconut dancer for the Cambodian New Year’s celebration and then with other events.
Jennifer Poth will major in criminal justice after a childhood marked by bullying. In high school, she learned more about the university through the Partners in Achievement of Lowell Students (PALS) program, which brings UML and Middlesex Community College students to Lowell High to mentor younger students. Poth will serve as associate director of the PALS program this year and be a mentor herself.
Poth is not only grateful for her scholarship, but was also fascinated to learn more at the scholarship award ceremony in June about the forced relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1946. She says she cried during a video about the internment camps.
In addition to Uy, other faculty and Lowell community members helped with the fund’s awards this year. English professor and incoming department chairwoman Sue J. Kim, who is also co-director of the Center for Asian American Studies, headed the application review committee.