Don Nakanishi and what might have been

I only met Don Nakanishi a couple times, but the first time we met (for only an hour or so) he very nearly changed the course of my entire adult life. He passed away early this week.

For someone I met at such a pivotal time in my life, I honestly didn’t know much about him until I started reading various articles and memorials. I didn’t even remember his name; my mom saw his obituary and recognized who he was. As it ends up, he was an Asian American Studies pioneer who had an amazing life.

Don was born and raised in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, a community which while being strongly Mexican American, was quite ethnically diverse during his youth. According to Yoshimi Kawashima, writing for Discover Nikkei, his parents were born in the US, raised in Japan, then returned to the States. They wanted him to have strong ties to his Japanese heritage, but he fully immersed himself in the community at school, especially Roosevelt High (which was predominantly Mexican American). He once said, “What makes me into an Asian American was getting an identity as a Chicano first.” It was this ability to cross ethnic boundaries which led to his becoming student body president.

It was during his time at Roosevelt that the Watts Riot happened, and he believes this influenced his acceptance to Yale. Having such a university recruit students from an underprivileged high school happened due to concerns about discrimination. Don was one of seven Asian Americans (along with seven African-Americans and seven Latinos) among the 1,000 of Yale’s first “Most Diverse Class”.

Although he entered Yale with aims to be a doctor, December 7th of his freshman year changed the course of his future. All the men on the floor of his dorm entered his room and pelted him with water balloons, chanting “Bomb Pearl Harbor!” It was at this point he started reading about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. “My parents never talked about [being incarcerated]…you know, they were No-Nos.” This led to Don to raise awareness of Asian Americans on campus and was the beginning of his life-long efforts in Asian American Studies, including founding the Amerasian Journal, the oldest academic Asian American journal.

According to Frank Wu of the UC Hastings College of the Law, Don “basically created Asian American Studies.” When Don first started teaching at UCLA, Asian Americans were underrepresented, especially outside the STEM areas. After being denied tenure, he successfully challenged the decision. He was at UCLA for 35 years, heading the UCLA Asian American Studies Center for two decades.

Don has earned many honors during his career. Yale awards the Nakanishi Prize to two graduating seniors “who have provided exemplary leadership in enhancing race and/or ethnic relations at Yale College during their undergraduate career while maintaining high standards of academic achievement.” Don received the inaugural the Outstanding Engaged Scholarship in Asian American & Pacific Islander Studies award, and it now bears his name. He also received the Yale Medal in 2008.

Both Yale and UCLA posted obituaries recognizing his long list of contributions to the schools.

To put it simply Don was a big deal, and his passing was major news.

I met Don when I was a senior in High School, after I had narrowed my choice of universities to Stanford and Yale. Since my mom went to Stanford and I had visited the campus several times, I had a good feel for it. Yale, not so much. Into the picture comes Don, who was a recruiter. He came over to the house and was extremely generous with his time, ably answering all of my questions. He must have been used to talking with California kids, with his ability to not sugar-coat the realities of weather on the east coast while at the same time making assurances that it's something one can get used to.

It's not surprising that Don was given a lot of information about me; he arrived knowing not only that music and math were my areas of interest, but what Yale could offer me in those areas. His enthusiasm was contagious, and my strongest impression is he would do anything he could to help others improve their lives.

My decision between Stanford and Yale was much harder than I thought it would be, and that was all due to Don. He was very gracious when I called him to thank him for his time, but that I had decided on Stanford. I was glad I got to know him as a person, outside of all of his accomplishments. I'm also glad that I now know how influential he was, and that my impression of his character was spot on.