A Tribute to Jane Hideko Higa
By Glen Kinoshita
Few names in Christian Student Development are as familiar as Jane Hideko Higa. As a senior Student Development professional and a long time member of ACSD, her gentle spirit and voice of wisdom has provided guidance and counsel for many across the country. As one who has faithfully served the Lord, as well as the institutions she has been a part of, it is fitting that we pause to allow her life and career speak to us. Jane’s narrative takes us on a journey, one that intersects with the history of a people, and as a Christian, a testimony that speaks of God’s faithfulness and providence.
Jane Higa identifies herself as “Sansei,” a third generation Japanese American. As a people, Japanese Americans have two distinct histories based on where they settled as they emigrated from Japan, Hawaii or the West Coast. As we learn of Jane’s story, we’re introduced to two families, two separate journeys separated by an ocean, and how they eventually became one.
The late 1860’s brought the advent of the Meiji era where the Japanese government sought to modernize Japan and thus industrialization and militarization became a priority. As a result, farmers were taxed and many went into debt and even lost their land. At the same time, the sugar industry in Hawaii began to boom. With Japan having lifted its ban on immigration, thousands applied for a work permit and sought to make the long journey across the Pacific. Those who first emigrated from Japan are referred to as “Issei,” or first generation. It was during this time that Jane’s great grandfather on her father’s side traveled from Hiroshima, Japan to Maui to work in the sugar cane plantations.
It was the intent of those who first traveled to Hawaii to work for a period of time, acquire wealth, and then return to Japan. The reality of plantation work, however, was long hours in the hot sun and less than adequate pay. As time went by, it became evident that many would not be able to return home and had to stay in Hawaii due to economic hardship. Single Japanese men were the ones who first made the journey to Hawaii. In traditional Japanese culture, starting a family was a high priority and marriage was by arrangement. As a result, the parents of bachelors who were in Hawaii and young single women in Japan, with the assistance of a matchmaker, would arrange marriages by use of pictures; hence the term, “picture bride.” It was both Jane’s great grandmother and grandmother who, while still in their teens, made the journey across the Pacific Ocean by boat to marry men they had never met, acquainted only by way of photographs. It was in Maui that Jane’s father was born a “Nisei,” or second generation Japanese American.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, life became extremely difficult for Japanese Americans on both sides of the Pacific. As did many Japanese American men in Hawaii, Jane’s father enlisted in the armed forces and fought in the 100th battalion, an all Japanese American combat unit. Though he saw many of his friends killed alongside him in battle, he felt a responsibility to show his loyalty to the U.S., not only for himself but also on behalf of the Japanese American community. After being discharged from the military, Jane’s father enrolled in Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, to study the craft of watch making.
“Gaman” (Quiet Endurance)
Like those who traveled to Hawaii, many Japanese also immigrated to the West Coast for employment opportunities. Jane’s grandfather on her mother’s side emigrated from Niigata, Japan, to the West Coast where he worked alongside the Chinese to build the railroads. After several years, Jane’s grandfather traveled back to Japan for an arranged marriage. He returned with his bride to the U.S. and settled in Hawthorne, California, where Jane’s mother was born.
Prior to World War II, Jane’s family owned a grocery store, lived in a two-story house and had achieved middle class status. Life changed drastically after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the evacuation and incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps across the U.S. Jane’s family left their house and business, and were taken away to be interned. Most Japanese Americans lost everything during this time. Jane’s family was in good repute with the community and as a result their neighbors offered to watch over their home. Their family business however, never reopened.
After being numbered and labeled one by one, Japanese Americans were first moved to temporary “assembly centers” to be detained while the internment camps were being built. Jane’s mother and grandparents were moved to a racetrack at Santa Anita, California, where they spent their nights sleeping in horse stalls. The stables had to be cleared quickly in order to accommodate them. There wasn’t much cleaning done prior; flies and the smell of manure accompanied sleeping in beds made out of straw. The average stay at the assembly centers was approximately three months. An internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, was the eventual destination where Jane’s mother and grandparents would spend the next three years. The internment camps were scattered in remote areas across the country. Each camp was surrounded with barbed wire and armed guards. Food was served daily in mess halls and sleeping quarters were in barracks, all in crowded conditions. Because of the government’s suspicion of espionage, Japanese Americans were detained without due process. No history book could ever capture the humiliation and loss suffered during this time.
As the war came to an end, Jane’s parents would soon cross paths. After being released from the internment camps, Jane’s mother moved to Peoria, Illinois, where she did domestic work. It was there, in Illinois, that Jane’s parents met and were married. Soon thereafter, they moved to Hawaii where Jane was born and spent much of her early formative years. As Hawaii was a world of rich diversity, this is the context Jane grew up in, playing with kids from many different cultures, eating shave ice and enjoying warm tropical breezes. While in first grade, Jane’s grandmother on her mother’s side passed away. In order to help care for her recently widowed grandfather, the family moved to Hawthorne into the house Jane’s mother lived in prior to the internment camps. Jane was six years old.
“Giri” (Sense of Duty)
Moving from Hawaii to Southern California had its challenges. As Jane prepared for her first day of school, her father pulled her aside and said to her, “Things are different here and there aren’t many Japanese Americans who live here like they do in Hawaii. When you go to school, you need to be on your best behavior because you are representing our family.” He then added, “Not only are you representing our family but all Japanese Americans.” Imagine the pressure on this youngster only six years old. So life in this new world began. As others would learn that Jane was from Hawaii they would ask her questions like, “Do people in Hawaii wear grass skirts?” “Have you ever worn shoes before?” It was as if Hawaii was a foreign country to everyone around her. While walking home from school one day, a young boy riding his bike spit in her face and said, “You Jap!” The spit hitting her face is still a vivid memory to this day. These experiences were a stark contrast to what life was like in Hawaii, where Asians were in the majority. In California, Jane was in the minority and for the first time, encountered instances of racial prejudice.
While in eighth grade Jane ran for student body president and won the election. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances that had occurred in her school, she began to notice those on the margins of society, those that didn’t fit in. The students who did feel marginalized expressed their appreciation of having someone in a leadership position that noticed, cared, and understood what it felt like to be marginalized. Experiences like this were like seeds that would grow into a lifelong awareness of those who were at the margins of our society.
While in Junior High, Jane was invited by her Japanese American neighbors to go to church. Entering a time in life when she and her sister would start dating, Jane remembers her mother saying, “You should go to church, that way you can meet a nice Japanese boy.” She did go to church with her neighbors, heard the gospel and became a Christian. For the next several years after her conversion, Jane continued to attend Gardena Valley Baptist Church, a Japanese American church.
While in High School, Jane shared with her counselor that she desired to attend a college that was community oriented and academically strong. Her counselor said he knew the perfect place, only that it was a Christian College. Jane said, “Oh, I’m a Christian.” This is how Jane first heard about Westmont College. They drove up together to Westmont, got a tour of the campus and a financial aid package all in one day’s visit. Attending Westmont College was, again, the journey of being a student of color on a predominantly white campus. Prior to her time in college, Jane was never one to just socialize with only Asian Americans; but being in the numerical minority and away from family, it created a great need to be with people of a similar background. While at Westmont Jane met another Japanese American girl with whom she became friends with and did everything together. Jane recalls one day she and her friend saw that Chicken Teriyaki and rice would be served for dinner in the dining hall. They were the first ones in line that night for dinner. To their chagrin, they were served Uncle Ben’s rice and chicken that was nothing close to the Chicken Teriyaki they were accustomed to. And so went her freshman year, one of adjustment and coming to terms with being a Japanese American student in a majority white student body.
During her sophomore year, Jane began to face more challenging issues. One incident of significance was during an African American emphasis week, where guest speakers and films were featured with discussions following. After a particular film shown one evening, the African American students who were present began to share their struggles while attending Westmont. Some of the White students then responded, “Why don’t you just go home if this is such a bad experience for you?” Jane couldn’t believe what she was hearing. In other words, the message being sent to the African American students that night was that you don’t belong here. This discussion became an angry exchange between the African American and White students. Jane remembers at this point feeling like she was very much alone. She looked around at those present and remembers not seeing a single Asian person. Jane was not able to relate with what the White students were saying but not quite able to relate to the African American students’ perspective either. This began her process of exploring her ethnic identity and what it meant to be Japanese American, as well as exploring the experience of being a student of color in a predominantly White institution.
After graduating from Westmont College, Jane pursued her Master’s degree at the University of Southern California (USC). With her appreciation for diversity continuing to expand, she did her Master’s thesis on African American student adjustment in Higher Education. After completing her Master’s Degree she became a Resident Director at USC and hired with an ethnically diverse RA staff. During this time, Jane got involved with the Black Student Union (BSU) at USC and helped plan events on campus. She was the only person in the BSU that was not African American, an experience she learned from and cherishes to this day. Being rather content working in a secular college, Christian Higher Education was not in her career plan; but while serving as Director for Resident Student Development at USC, she was approached by the Dean of Men at Biola University to consider working in Christian Higher Education. At Biola, Jane became the Dean of Women and eventually the Dean of Students. After serving nine years at Biola, Jane became the Vice-President of Student Life at Westmont College.
Jane feels that those who work with students on a daily basis have unique opportunities to play an important role in making our campuses “home” for all students. In order to do this, each of us as student development professionals need to first understand our students. For instance, Jane remembers issues arising when students of the same ethnicity sat together in the dining hall. “Why are all the African American students always sitting together?” There are often judgments behind such questions. From Jane’s experience she realizes that students are on a journey and at the beginning stages of their young adult development. For students of color, finding a place of safety in a predominantly white environment is important.
As she did when she was student body president in Junior High school, Jane still shares a burden for students who are marginalized. Quoting Jane, “Today there are many students who come to Christian colleges or universities because it is a safe place for them. The culture, lingo and surroundings are familiar. We therefore are surprised when we learn that some of our students (often students of color) come to our ‘friendly’ institutions and yet do not feel safe. The challenges these students face can be overwhelming. Many are first generation college students whose parents are not knowledgeable of the process of going to college. They also may not have the financial backing of their parents. For other students, they may come from wealthy, educated families, but do not feel ‘at home’ as they notice that their peers look at them as ‘different’ because of their skin color or other differences. It is important that we see each person as a unique individual. All students need our support and care.”
Jane believes that college is a crucial time for discovering one’s identity. “For students of color, ethnic identity development is foremost in their process. The question for those of us in student development is how are we affirming students of color in this developmental process. As our campuses do not tend to have many faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds to serve as models for our students of color, it is imperative that each of us seeks to understand the experiences of students who are on the margins. As students develop a strong sense of self and a secure ethnic identity, they will be empowered to be effective in all of life,” says Jane.
Growing up in Hawaii had much to do with Jane developing a strong ethnic identity, which has proven to be an asset in tackling many challenges for her life and career. As an administrator in Christian Higher Education, Jane has often been the only woman on a senior administration level, as well as the only Asian American. A major challenge has been to communicate and function in the midst of management and communication styles that run contrary to Jane’s own personhood and culture. Through it all she has learned versatility and flexibility. The goal of being a competent professional has been a motivating factor that has taken her a long way. At the same time, Jane has been true to herself despite having had to adjust in a predominantly White male world. Jane feels deeply that the reason the Lord called her to work in Christian Higher Education is because of its need for our institutions to better care for all of our students, including our students of color. Jane has also come to believe that the voice of White people in the diversity conversation and in the process of reconciliation is crucial. She states, “Establishing diversity as a priority must come from those who are in core positions of leadership in our colleges and universities. Even as a Japanese American in a position as Vice President of Student Life, I feel I need support and leadership from those in other senior administrative positions.” Jane also sees the need for people of color to be placed in positions of influence throughout our colleges and universities as opposed to just seeing them involved in programs that are designated to work with students of color or around issues of diversity. “Having people from diverse ethnicities and cultures at all levels of our institutions would be an enriching reality and worthy goal for all of us” says Jane.
In looking back at Jane’s career, we see an example of faithfulness, influence and incredible achievement. To highlight just a few with regards to the Association of Christians in Student Development (ACSD), she has served as the Chair of the planning committee that hosted the ACSD National Conference at Westmont, the Chair of the Diversity Task Force, and the Vice-President and President Elect for the ACSD Executive Committee. In 1998 Jane was the recipient of the John L. Boender Award; in 2011 she was the first recipient of an award named in her honor, the Jane Hideko Higa Multicultural Advancement Award; and most recently she received the Lifetime of Achievement Award (2013). She has served in various leadership roles for the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), namely as former Chair of the Commission of Chief Student Development Officers as well as a member of the Racial Harmony Commission. (Craig, 2013; “Vice President,” 2013). Needless to say, Jane’s career has impacted many involved in Christian Higher Education across the country.
After 24 years of faithful service as the Vice-President of Student Life and Dean of Students at Westmont College, Jane Higa has retired. As we pause to reflect on the life journey she has taken us on, it is most awe-inspiring. Like her family before her, Jane has sojourned and adapted to new life settings, cultivated soil, planted seeds, nurtured life giving growth, endured hardship, confronted injustice, casted vision and opened doors of opportunity and understanding to hundreds of her colleagues and students through the years. Jane’s family has remained central to her life. Though there have been challenges, as in the passing of her husband Paul several years ago, Jane has continued to find support with her children Josh and Jen, and her recent marriage to Jim Mannoia. For those of us who work in Student Development, we truly stand on her shoulders. We can all carry on Jane’s legacy by following her example: pursue our careers with excellence, advocate for those on the margins, and to tell our story to others. As we do, our institutions will no doubt better reflect God’s kingdom on earth.
Mahalo Jane! Ke Akua Ho'omaika'i Oe! (God bless you).
Craig, S. (2013, April 3). "Westmont Dean of Students Jane Higa Retires After ALS Diagnosis." Retrieved from http://www.noozhawk.com/article/040313_westmont_dean_jane_higa_retires_als_diagnosis/
Westmont College Website. (April 2013)."Vice President and Dean of Students to Retire." Retrieved from http://blogs.westmont.edu/2013/04/01/vice-president-and-dean-of-students-to-retire/