What does it mean to “belong,” or to be part of a community that invites people to express their opinions and challenges you to be your best self? Mary Jane Mikuriya ’52 shares her experience growing up in a bi-racial family with a Japanese father and German speaking mother during World War II.
“It was a challenge,” said Mary Jane. “We were visibly “different” from those around us in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. Not only that, but my parents were university educated which also set my family apart from the predominantly farming community where we lived.”
“My parents both attended universities in Philadelphia,” continued Mary Jane. “They met during a protest at International House because of “land use convent,” the facility could not allow African Americans to live there. They were always social activists, and our house was always filled with creative and intelligent people of different races and different cultures and countries.”
“My parents greatly valued education. My mother was a research scientist at The Wistar Institute and my father was a civil engineer who developed the steel structures used to build high-rise buildings. Being smart was not enough, they also believed you needed to be kind to others. My mother arranged for my brother, Tod Mikuriya ’51, and me to take an IQ test at the University of Pennsylvania. Once she knew we were “smart” enough she planned for us to go to college. During WW II, our local school taught students to hate those who were not “American,” those with accents. It was not until the construction of Levittown, when “whites” from immigrant ethnicities mingled, did things start to change and ethnic jokes decreased. But not for my family because we still looked different.”
As a child, Mary Jane was subjected to verbal and physical attacks frequently just because of her “enemy” heritage. Her parents were pacifists and attended Fallsington Friends Meeting and did not know what to do. So, it was decided that she and Tod should attend George School. Later, their sister Beverly Mikuriya ’63 also attended.
“I entered George School at an interesting time,” said Mary Jane. “The Class of 1949 wanted to invite Ralph Bunche, Noble Peace Prize recipient, to speak at Commencement but he declined because his son would not be able to attend George School because of the color of his skin. Students led demonstrations and this prompted the school to admit students of color who were not Quakers.”
As a day student, Mary Jane increasingly spent more time on campus as she became involved in many clubs and activities. “I loved dinner and the language/special interest tables where you had to speak in that language during dinner or discuss the topic,” said Mary Jane. “This opened my mind to another world. At the time, George School was the only school I was aware of that was teaching sex education and discussing healthy relationships in mixed gender classrooms. I was the first girl to take mechanical drawing with Mr. Brown, and wood shop at George School. John Streetz, the first African American teacher, was my chemistry teacher and he remained a friend throughout my life. John had just graduated from Lincoln University, and he only knew college level chemistry so that is what he taught us. When I went to Brown University, chemistry was so easy as a result.”
“I bloomed as a student at George School,” continued Mary Jane. “My brother and I did not know we were smart only that we were misfits in our other school. At George School, I could talk to students my age, and I could develop my social skills. George School helped prepare me for college and to become more fully integrated as an American. I remember learning campfire and college songs at George School which were then familiar when I went to college. I was raised by foreign born parents who thought they were raising their children as Americans, but they were not. They did not know all of the nuances that George School helped me with, and which allowed me to “blend in.” I felt I belonged in a way I had not felt before which is why I continue to return to campus for reunions.”
After George School, Mary Jane attended Pembroke College in Brown University to study Math and Engineering. “It never occurred to me, nor certainly my mother, that there were fields closed to women,” said Mary Jane. “I could take any class I wanted at George School and Brown. I am grateful to George School for its welcome—allowing me to follow my interests and empowering me to try different things, including being the only girl at Brown with two hundred men in our freshman engineering class and not feeling awkward.”
“However, when I met with an engineering company to discuss what courses I needed to get a job as an engineer with them upon graduation, the man was horrified and told me, ‘we could not guarantee your safety and we do not have a bathroom for women.’ After that, I transferred to pure math and became a teacher.”
Mary Jane first started teaching in Massachusetts and then California. “New teachers are often assigned to low-income areas which is what happened to me,” explained Mary Jane. “I volunteered with the new Title One program as an evaluator to make sure federal funds were being used appropriately in schools. That led to a rewarding career working to make education integrated and equitable. My experience at George School working with various club representatives prepared me for this work.”
Travel and meeting new people have always been a passion for Mary Jane. “My husband and I received a gift of money to travel around the world in celebration of his PhD graduation. However, in the early 1960s, the Australian visa was closed to me as they did not accept Asians, so we went to Europe instead. There I saw a sign, “Meet the Danes,” which offered a home cooked meal and conversation with a local family. That experience led me to become involved with Servas, a non-profit organization providing a hospitality exchange service. I also started hosting international guests on behalf of the US State Department. I love hosting and introducing international guests to Americans so we can explore topics in greater depth, learn from each other, and provide a sense of belonging the same way George School did for me.”