Friday, November 09, 2007

Beroni, Obet, and I are on the airplane right now, heading home from our trip to Hawaii, which was absolutely FANTASTIC! It was really sad to leave. We have made many good friends in our 4 days there, caught up with old friends, and taken over 400 photos (thanks to Beroni the photo queen).

After working a full day at CMI on Monday, we got on the 7pm flight and flew for 5 hours (across the international dateline) and landed at 2:30am in Honolulu. Beroni and Obet almost didn’t make it into the USA because they got an immigration agent that insisted that they tell him the exact address of University of Hawaii where we would be staying (which none of us knew anyway). But they were persistent, got back in the line and went to another agent who was nicer and let them through. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try another immigration officer!” Marshallese citizens are guaranteed free passage into the United States under the Compact of Free Association between the two countries, so luckily they don’t have to go through the whole process of obtaining a visa.

After that, we had our first adventure: getting down an escalator. It was Beroni’s first time out of Majuro since she was a 1-year-old baby, so she has never seen an escalator before, and she was wearing wobbly platform shoes. She managed to make it down without falling over and then ran back up the stairs so I could capture the triumphant moment with a photo. She got plenty more practice on escalators in the following days all over Hawaii.

After surviving customs and the escalator, we were met by Bubba, who greeted us and gave us leighs. Bless his heart, he was awake all night picking up different groups of students. We finally got out of the airport at 3:30am and then he had to go back again at 5am to pick up the group from American Samoa. He is the LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) program assistant for University of Hawaii at Manoa. He’s also a new father (of a beautiful 3-month old girl who we met on Wednesday) and working on his PhD degree at Manoa. He is of Cherokee Native American descent and ran a similar program to LSAMP in Oregon before coming to Hawaii. He took us to our dorm rooms at UH Manoa and we slept for all of 4 hours before waking back up to go through another busy Monday all over again!

The reason for our trip was to take part in the beginning of this new program, and alliance which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Our “Islands of Opportunity Alliance” includes UH Manoa, UH Hilo, Hawaii Pacific University, Chaminade University, and Community Colleges in Hawaii, American Samoa, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and of course, College of the Marshall Islands. The groups at each of these colleges and universities are dedicated to increasing the number of Pacific Islanders who obtain Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The others who participated were wonderful! There were two students and an Instructor from CMI (us), American Samoa Community College, Palau Community College, Kapiolani Community College, and UH Hilo.

During our “second Monday” (the one we spent in Hawaii after crossing the dateline) we toured UH Manoa, which is a huge campus. Our students liked it, but I think it was a little overwhelming. They’ve never walked so much in their lives, especially because CMI is smaller than most high schools in the States. It was also the first time that our students ever tried walking up hills also, since hills don’t exist in the Marshalls. Their legs were sore for days. Beroni wore the same platform high-heels on the Manoa tour, and by half way through, we had to stop at the bookstore to get her a pair of Zories because she was about to fall over.
At Manoa we learned internship programs for Biological Sciences and Geosciences and the many wonderful research opportunities. That night, Bubba and Josh (the LSAMP directors for UH Manoa) left us with a van and we piled in it to go in search of Waipahu (where Beroni’s brother lives). It is on the other side of Honolulu, and we had no map, so we found a tourguide to help us get there. Anthony and Inga (whose real name is Jordan, but he prefers Inga) had a friend from back home in Samoa named Lenny who led us to Waipahu. We met up with Beroni’s brother Junior (a sweet former CMI student himself) and then we went to the nearby Walmart. Beroni spent the whole 45 minutes until closing time in the earring section and never got to see anything else. For a girl who loves jewelry and loves to shop, it was heaven to spend 45 minutes there, because that one small jewelry section of Walmart had more jewelry than all the shops on our small island put together. Lenny and Inga (who are “Fafafinas” (Samoan term for men who prefer to be women) love it too. I was reminded that Walmart is truly the icon of American excess. We managed to make it back again by midnight and sleep for a couple of hours again, only to wake up and catch a flight to the Big Island so we could tour University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Hilo was one of the best stops on our trip! Many of our CMI students like to transfer there because there’s a nice little cohort of Ri-Majol students there and it’s a bit more rural and a smaller campus (3000 students and an undergraduate focus). Visiting that campus made ME want to transfer to Hilo with our students. The campus just revolves around students and their activities. We met Rose Cheng, the chancellor of the campus (who is also the Principle Investigator for the LSAMP grant) who is a wonderful leader and has such a positive attitude toward students and offering students the very best opportunities both academic and extra-curricular. After visiting that campus, I feel really confident and optimistic about encouraging as many of our students as possible to transfer there after CMI. The student services and financial aid just really take good care of them and give them the best possible opportunities available. The faculty are wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic about involving undergraduate students in their research. I just can’t say enough good things about this University.

Hilo is where the LSAMP program is centered, and the LSAMP staff there are great. Carmen and Ulu run the program at Hilo, and while they showed us around, told us lots of great things about the history of the Hawaiian people. It’s really amazing how a small group of sugarcane farm owners and the American government conspired to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. Those events have had a profound effect on the culture and lives of the Hawaiian people since. In the past 25 years there has been revival of interest in preserving and restoring Hawaiian language and culture, and at both Manoa and Hilo there are fantastic Hawaiian studies programs. It’s also interesting to note the parallels between the interactions of America with Hawaii and America with the Marshall Islands. On one hand, the economy and job opportunities for Hawaiians are much better than that of the Marshallese because of their statehood (an option which the Marshall Islands turned down after the trust territory days), yet Hawaiians have lost much of their cultural identity and language as a result of statehood, whereas Marshallese have a VERY strong “manit” (tradition) and are very dedicated to using their own language first and foremost.

We met up with all our former 2+2 students and a few others for dinner. Carmen and Ulu had a few extra dining hall tickets that they gave to us, and I treated the rest of the 13 students who joined us. It was great to follow up with them on how they were liking college life, how they liked their majors, and how their classes were. They really look out for each other like a family, and we had a great time laughing and catching up about life in Majuro and Hilo. Then reluctantly we had to say goodbye and fly back to Oahu that night.

After arriving back to Manoa we went over to the library in search of internet to check emails and try to connect with some other Marshallese living in the Honolulu area. UH Manoa offers free internet services to the general public in the front part of their library. We started using it and Beroni kept exclaiming, “it’s so fast!! Wow!” To which I kept saying, “No, this is what internet is supposed to be like!” Now Manoa’s community internet is not super-deluxe edition or anything. It’s just that it’s 10 times faster than the service that CMI provides to our students. CMI gets free internet from UH Manoa through a satellite called PEACESAT which is slower than molasses and completely unreliable. In fact, while we were at Manoa, we found the PEACESAT building which (as you can see) is housed in a trailer and looks like it hasn’t gotten any attention since the 1980’s. Back at CMI, the students (and some student-services staff) receive PEACESAT internet while administrators and faculty have a much faster service through the National Telecommunications Authority. We learned alot and got a vision for what a student-centered campus can be.

On Wednesday we toured Hawaii Pacific University and Chaminade. Both are smaller private schools and both are on big, steep hills. That was quite the experience! At the Hale Aloha dining hall (where we ate 3 meals a day), Beroni ran around taking pictures with all of the cooks and dish washers. I got a memory card for my camera and then gave it to her with a 600 picture capacity. She went crazy with it and has taken nearly 400 pictures now. She took Anthony along as her photographer and posed with each of them. Her smile and sweetness warmed their hearts. These are people who work at the freshman dorm serving students who don’t even look up and greet them because they are so self-absorbed. Beroni and Anthony made them feel like a million bucks and ever after that, whenever she came into the cafeteria their faces lit up and she greeted them all. They were really sad to see her go, and she kept saying, “Wow, I’m going to really miss this cafeteria!” It was such a touching and heartwarming thing to watch, and a great reminder that there are so many people in the world who are desperately in need of a little kindness.

Wednesday night we wrapped things up with our little group by having a Kava ceremony with Josh and Bubba. Kava is a popular drink in the islands (particularly in Hawaii and Fiji) made from powder that is extracted from a particular root. It doesn’t have a very strong flavor, but after you swallow it, it makes your tongue numb. Kava is a ritual that is very important to islanders because it brings them together and opens lines of communication. Josh passed the coconut shell with kava inside to each person in turn, and each told about what he or she had learned and what they would do with that knowledge, then drank the bowl. It was a quiet and peaceful time of reflection, friendship, and humility. It was a great way to wrap up our visit.

Thursday they turned us loose in Honolulu for a shopping extravaganza! Every time someone from the Marshall Islands goes to Hawaii, friends in the Marshalls pack up a cooler with bwiro (breadfruit pudding), reef fish, and handicrafts. Then on the return trip the cooler comes home with gifts of clothing and electronics that are not easily found in Majuro. We had a long list of family and friends to find things for to pack into our coolers for the return trip. We dropped off our American Samoa friends at the airport, and then headed back to Waipahu. Beroni’s brother had given her money to buy the things their family back home needs (it’s his responsibility as the oldest in the family and the one who has a job in Honolulu to provide, even though he’s only about 24 years old). We spent about 2 hours in Kmart (decision, decisions!) and then we went to Savers (a thrift store) and got some great deals there. I got my Halloween costume for this year. I’m going to be a Fijian for Halloween! I found a gorgeous Fijian dress and some kukui beads. Now I just have to locate a black wig. We got home late, packed up our bags (now twice as heavy as when we came) and left for the airport at 4:30am this morning.

It has been such a fantastic trip! I have learned SO much and gotten so many great resources for our students back home who want to transfer. I really realized how much I care about helping our Pacific Islander students make the transition they need to make in order to survive away from their families abroad. There is a lot to absorb. Imagine seeing skyscrapers and traffic signals and Superstores for the first time in your life at age 22! But if they can make this transition, they can reach their academic potential and then return to their island and make gigantic contributions. I also really feel like I’ve gotten clarity on the direction that I would like my career to take. I wouldn’t mind working at Hilo one day! I am thinking along the lines of one day becoming a transfer counselor or student development coordinator. I love being a teacher very much, but I also LOVE serving students and being around students and if I could get some more experience doing Student Services/Student Life at CMI, it would set me up with relevant experience in that field for the future. I could always do both student services and be an adjunct instructor as well, so I could get the best of both worlds. Going to college and experiencing new and diverse things was one of the highlights of my own life, and I would be delighted to help our students make choices that will give them the same experiences.

The picture here is of our little atoll, Majuro. This shot is of our home, Uliga/Small Island. Our trip has really put things into perspective, and made us appreciative for both the uniqueness of our island country and also for the wonderful new things in the world beyond. Happy landings!


Lindsay said...

Sounds like you had a great time. If you eventually work in Hawaii we will come visit for sure!!

Anthony said...

Oh the joys of US immigration :-)

WWG said...

Hi, good blog :) good photos:)
Look from Quebec Canada

WWG :)