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Student Finds New Passion
Second Time Around

Her long-awaited bachelor's degree comes with special recognition

Story by Mimi Ko Cruz

June 15, 2006 :: No. 261

A quarter of a century has passed since Coleen Wakai dropped out of Cal State Fullerton to give birth to the first of her two children.

Wakai now has completed that long-awaited bachelor's degree. The 55-year-old Asian American studies major received special recognition at last month's commencement as the recipient of the Craig and Claire Outstanding Asian American Studies Student Award at commencement last month.

Wakai worked as a registered dental hygienist for 28 years until a day in 2003 when she fell walking down a narrow street, breaking her elbow and suffering permanent damage to her right arm.

"The doctors said if I use it, I lose it," she said. "I can't lift more than five pounds and I can't put any pressure on it. You need a really strong arm to scale off all the plaque on patients' teeth and I'm right-handed, so I couldn't do that any more."

Going back to college sparked a new passion for Wakai, who jokes that while her friends are busy making retirement plans, she is preparing for grad school and a new career.

While at CSUF, Wakai got involved with the Japanese American Living Legacy program, a nonprofit campus-based group that aims to preserve the historical memories and experiences of Japanese Americans. She conducted many interviews, recording the oral histories of Japanese American veterans who served in World War II as military intelligence officers.

"I'm a third generation Japanese American, my parents were in internment camps, and so I was very interested in this project," she said. "I'm helping tell the stories of veterans, who for 30 years were classified and unable to even tell their family what they did during the war. They share their inner most feelings about how they felt, and their perspectives as they remember them today. I am helping them to record pieces of history that have not been recorded in the past. This has been such a wonderful experience."

Wakai credits her studies in the Asian American studies program for helping her find this new passion that she hopes to continue working on as a grad student.

She said that through her courses, she has gained a "greater appreciation of the process from the first generation here in America, the struggles and dreams of the sojourner as well as the assimilation and social networking and racial and political issues that seem to engage the future generations."

"My exposure to various ethnicities, cultures and concepts have enhanced my knowledge and sparked an interest that keeps getting stronger," Wakai said.

Wakai has been accepted to the San Jose State library science graduate program at CSUF. She begins classes in the fall and plans to earn a master's degree and to eventually work as a librarian at a college or university.

"Besides carrying a high grade point average, Coleen is one of those people who is always willing to help out in a good cause," said from Craig Ihara, professor of philosophy and coordinator of Asian American studies. "She has mentored a number of Asian American students and has been an inspiration to many."

Media Contacts:

Craig Ihara at 657-278-2006 or

Mimi Ko Cruz, Public Affairs, 657-278-7586 or

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Coleen Wakai
Coleen Wakai

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