Suppose you had one day to decide everything you would need to pack for a journey to an unknown destination for an undetermined length of time that could be months or even years.
Now suppose you have to cull down your possessions to only what will fit in one small, carry-on sized suitcase. What would you pack?
It’s a question Judy Sakaki likes to ask students as a metaphorical exercise in sifting out what is most essential in life, whether actual objects or less tangible things like personal character traits.
But the Sonoma State University President also uses it as a history lesson, an example of what 110,000 people went through in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to be “relocated” to internment camps for the duration of World War II.
The term “internment camps” is slowly being recognized for what the camps really were — walled prisons surrounded by barbed wire patrolled by armed guards.
Sakaki has a visual for this lesson: a century-old suitcase covered with travel stickers that belonged to her grandfather. He packed his worldly goods in this bag when he set off from Japan for a new life in America a century ago. And when he received the order that he and his entire family would be rounded up within a day and sent off somewhere, he packed everything he could in that brittle leather bag.
That old suitcase and dozens of other articles and bits of ephemera have been gathered from boxes stored in Sakaki’s garage and put on display in the University Library Gallery. Together, they tell the back-story of the first Japanese-American woman in the country to head up a four-year college. It all begins with her roots as the granddaughter of Japanese immigrants; all four of her grandparents came from Japan in the early part of the 20th century.
The exhibit, “I am because...” has been assembled to coincide with Sakaki’s investiture as president at 2 p.m. April 20. Although Sakaki has been on the job since last July, the formal ceremony is a high ritual in academia, officially vesting her with the responsibilities associated with serving as SSU’s seventh president.
There will be other events that day, starting with a mini-conference open to the public dealing with issues of sustainability, diversity and community engagement from 9 a.m. to noon. There will also be a reception in the courtyard at The Green Music Center after the ceremonies, with a free evening concert in Weill Hall by Hiroshima, a band that integrates traditional Japanese instruments into their fusion sound.
“I think we bring who we are and who we’ve become to everything we do,” the 63-year-old Sakaki said of the influence her Japanese culture has had on so many aspects of her life. “The vision I bring to my role as president of Sonoma State is shaped by my life experiences and my values.
“This is a part of me.”
She frequently tells her family’s story as both a cautionary tale, to let people know what can happen to anyone who is different, like immigrants. She also does it as a way of inspiring students, particularly those who are immigrants or first- or second-generation Americans, to know that they too, can dream big.