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Provided by Alexis Karolin.

Student Spotlight: Alexis Karolin teams up with Professor Aden for Japanese internment research

Clarification appended.

Alexis Karolin, a senior studying history in the Honors Tutorial College (HTC), has spent the last year working with Dr. Roger Aden, a professor of speech communication at OU, on a research proposal surrounding Japanese American internment. 

The project began rather unconventionally while Karolin was in Wales studying abroad. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict travel bans set in place, Karolin remained in Wales throughout lockdown. 

“In the Honors Tutorial College, the dean started getting other funding resources and encouraging professors who wanted to pursue research projects,” Karolin said. “If they applied for funding, then they could start up some other research projects, just so a lot of students who had lost those internship opportunities (because of the pandemic) could have other options with the university. I was just hanging around in Wales and my friend sent me an email and was like, ‘You need to look at your inbox right now, because I just sent you a research proposal, and it's perfect for you.’”

Karolin read the proposal, which included various data sets that each fell under the theme of Japanese American Internment. 

“(Dr. Aden’s) proposal included three data sets, the first being the Clara Breed letter collection,” Karolin said. “The second was different photography collections in the Japanese American National Museum online archive. And the third was the Hisako Hibi oil painting collection. The proposition was that this research apprentice would look at those data sets and determine if there were any findings based on Communication Studies framework. Then if there were findings, there would potentially be a paper written.”

Despite being across the world from each other, Dr. Aden interviewed Karolin for the role. He ultimately chose her to collaborate with him on this research. They began with the Clara Breed letter collection, which consisted of letters from Japanese American children during their time in incarceration during World War II. 

“We analyzed themes in written communication, and this was very interesting because it was children's communication,” Karolin said. “I ended up transcribing 243 children's letters from that collection, and then I did an analysis. I coded all of those letters by themes. Once I had all those codes, it was like tearing apart everything and then putting it back together like a puzzle. I put everything back together in themes that I found in those letters, and then from there we decided to write a paper together.”

The paper, which has now been published as an official journal article, explored the themes that Karolin found in her research. 

“The ... themes that we have are displacement anger and replacement,” Karolin said. “It's the three things that children were navigating as they were in those internment camps when they were struggling to identify their home in terms of place — as in do they belong in Japan, in the U.S., where they grew up or this new place of the internment camp. Then, at the same time, identifying home in terms of their identity. These children were mainly second generation and third generation Japanese Americans. They were natural born citizens in the U.S., but there's that conflict of identity when the government relocated them, because then they're labeled as the ethnic enemy. It's that conflict of ‘Are you Japanese?’ ‘Are you American?’ ‘What does it mean to be a Japanese American person?’”

These central questions drawn from Karolin’s collaborative research were also reflected in her own life, which enabled Karolin to feel a personal connection to the conclusions she made in her professional work. 

“I was really drawn to this research originally because I'm a huge history nerd,” Karolin said. “But over time, it's become something that's very important to me as an Asian American. I am Chinese, and I was adopted in 2000. My parents are white, and my sister was also adopted. We grew up in this bicultural experience. I grew up surrounded by American culture, and my parents tried to teach me about Chinese culture. I know what it's like to walk the line between those two cultures and not really know where you fit in. I think for Japanese American internment, this sentiment of ‘Where do I belong?’ was really exacerbated in World War II. And so for me, it's been really helpful in navigating my own personal story about where I belong and seeing how it can be expressed, resolved and perhaps reconciled in academic scholarship.”

After researching and publishing this first data set, Karolin said she wanted to continue her research with the other two data sets Dr. Aden included in his initial proposal. 

“In the fall, we analyzed 167 photographs from Jack Iwata's internment photography collection, and we submitted a paper that is currently in press in the spring of 2021,” Karolin said. “Currently, I am working with the Hisako Hibi oil painting collection. There are 63 oil paintings, and I'm in the stages of editing a final article.”

Through all of her findings, Karolin expressed she hopes readers of her articles will understand the significance of intersectional and interdisciplinary perspectives when it comes to research. 

“What I personally am hoping that people gather from reading these papers, is the importance of interdisciplinary studies,” Karolin said. “You really have to include considerations of race, class, gender, religion -- all of those demographics that affect people. We can't only be studying one certain kind of people's experience. For example, we can't just study white people's experience during World War II, because it's not a holistic experience. We need to amplify the voices of everyone and uncover everything, because Japanese American internment is a really difficult thing to talk about -- it's very sad. But you also have to do justice to the people that experienced it and tell their stories.”

The importance of sharing their stories today, Karolin said, is due to the relevance that the subject matter has on current issues in our contemporary society. 

“Japanese American internment happened in the 1940s and 50s, but the study of it is still incredibly relevant today,” Karolin said. “There was an influx in reported Asian hate crimes during 2020 and 2021, and this didn't come out of nowhere. We know that the U.S. has a long standing history of Asian racism, and Japanese American internment is one example. Internment, in general, is also a big issue. For me, there's some criticism when people talk about the concentration camps in Germany from the Nazis. They say, ‘Oh, that was terrible, never again.’ And then you look at where we are now -- we still have different forms of those camps. They're not as extreme as they were in the 1940s, but if we're going to operate by the whole ‘We must learn from history,’ you start to question, ‘Well, are we really learning from it if there's still camps today, in the US and around the world?’”

Ultimately, throughout the personal and professional insight Karolin has gained through her research, she said she is grateful for the opportunity to have been chosen for the project and hopes other students will have similar offerings in the future. 

“I think that a lot of students who are in undergrad don't think that they'll graduate in four years with a journal article published, so it's a really huge accomplishment that I'm proud of,” Karolin said. “I am just really grateful to the Honors Tutorial College and Dr. Aden for funding this project and working with me. I hope that HTC continues this work and more departments open up opportunities at OU for people to continue doing these awesome research projects.” 


Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that Karolin said one of the themes of her paper was displacement anger, when she meant to say displacement anchor.This article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.

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