Student Finds New
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
"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
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
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
"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."
Craig Ihara at 657-278-2006 or email@example.com
Mimi Ko Cruz, Public Affairs, 657-278-7586 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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