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After nearly 50 years, 76-year-old receives his Ph.D.


For the average septuagenarian, the most important "social" event of the week might be at the local senior center. But for Isao Fujimoto, achieving social change is an everyday -- and lifetime -- endeavor. It's also why Fujimoto, age 76, senior lecturer emeritus at the University of California (UC)-Davis, who helped found the Asian American Studies Program (one of the first in the country) and the Graduate Program in Community Development at UC-Davis, put his dissertation aside for some 50 years.

But as of Feb. 1, Fujimoto -- finally -- received his Ph.D. in development sociology; he will be a degree marshal in this year's Commencement procession.

His thesis is on multiethnic efforts to organize immigrant communities in California's Central Valley.

"What's in focus here is how marginalized, unrecognized and diverse groups of immigrants within a setting of great contradictions can be energized to develop their communities," Fujimoto wrote in his introduction. "This dissertation is about tapping into the social capital that accumulates and grows among people as they interact with each other."

Fujimoto's dissertation in development sociology evolved from his experiences as a boy. Fujimoto's Japanese-immigrant parents and siblings (Fujimoto would become the eldest of 13) were farming on the Yakima Indian Reservation in eastern Washington when the U.S. government rounded them up and interned them in government camps for the duration of World War II.

That's where he learned "what it means to be isolated and treated in a way that's not really fair. … I think the wartime experience is a reminder of what happens to people in a time of crisis, especially if they are marginalized and hindered from organizing. It's very important that people really come together and realize the power that emerges when people start working together."

Isao Fujimoto, back row, far right, with the Cornell literacy project team in Honduras in 1961.

His lifetime work doing outreach to rural communities started to develop when he was at UC-Berkeley, where he chaired a delegation to make contact with the student movement in Indonesia. Drafted into the military in 1956, Fujimoto was a U.S. Army correspondent in Korea when the catalyst for his academic career at Cornell was launched, he says.

"I was in Korea when the Soviet Union sent up Sputnik, and when I got back, I found people scared and asking what was the country going to do to beat the Russians," said Fujimoto. "Beefing up our high school science and math programs was the answer and hence the programs to send high school science teachers for advanced training."

As a high school science teacher in San Jose, Calif., Fujimoto attended a radiation biology program at Howard University, where he learned as much about civil rights at the historically black university as about science. Then in 1961 he completed a program for science teachers at Cornell, where he subsequently led a Cornell literacy project in Honduras and settled in to start a doctoral program, doing fieldwork researching village development in the Philippines.

But in the midst of organizing data for his dissertation in 1967, he was recruited by UC-Davis to join the faculty and develop a program in community development. Putting his dissertation on hold, Fujimoto started an academic career working in rural sociology, farm labor issues, ethnic studies, social justice, and community, immigration and labor organizing and working with the American Friends Service Committee, Food First, Rural America and countless other organizations.

When he retired from UC-Davis in 1994, he revisited his dissertation.

"The dedication, commitment and focus of the people in organizations I've worked have been a source of energy and inspiration that has kept me going. That's what led me to not to give up on completing my Ph.D., even if it took nearly 50 years," said Fujimoto.

Added Charles Geisler, professor of development sociology who is Fujimoto's committee chair: "Isao is a survivor, a craftsman when it comes to applied scholarship and something of a legendary citizen among ethnic rural minority populations in the West."

Jennifer Wholey '10 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.