Our Navigating Success – 3rd Annual Pacific Islander Youth Empowerment conference for high school students of Pacific Island ethnicities was a complete success. What I started with our Marshallese Iakwe Club and a few colleagues from the Division of Student Affairs for 15 Marshallese students from Ka’u High School has grown into a popular annual conference. I’m so proud of the more than 130 volunteers from UH Hilo, Hawaii Community College, Micronesians United – Big Island, Hawaii County Prosecutor, Chaminade University, UH Manoa, and others who made this conference a success.
This is the front page article in the local paper, entitled, “Navigating Success: Pacific Islander Students Look Ahead to College,” on Oct. 26, 2015.
By IVY ASHE Hawaii Tribune-Herald
The annual Pacific Islander Youth Empowerment Day is about embracing possibilities.
Held Saturday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus, and attended by hundreds of high schoolers from around the island, the event is a way to share resources and guidance as Pacific Islander students prepare for the next stage of their lives. It’s part of a statewide Navigating Success campaign that focuses primarily on Hawaii’s Micronesian community.
Vidalino Raatior, director of the UH-Hilo Pacific Islanders Student Center, created the Hilo event shortly after he was hired in 2012 as a way for PISC students to connect with the community.
“It started…as a way to engage our college students in the lives of their younger counterparts in the local schools,” he said. “That’s been, really, the foundation of this day.”
During the first year, there were just 15 Marshallese students from Ka‘u who attended. Three years later, the numbers had grown to more than 200 Big Island students in high school and junior high. Most students who attend are from Micronesia, Raatior said, with some from Samoa and Tonga.
“It’s really geared just towards them (being) on a college campus,” Raatior said. “From what we were hearing from the community, students are kind of not believing that college is a viable option (and) that careers in other areas of work are kind of beyond them.”
“Those are some of the stereotypes and challenges of our community, and so this day is really set up as a way to engage these students,” he continued.
More than 90 college students signed up as volunteers. Though the event is based at UH-Hilo, students from Hawaii Community College, UH-Manoa and Chaminade University of Honolulu also attended, participating in panels throughout the day and fielding questions during a midday resource fair.
For the college students, volunteering is a way to give back to their community.
“It’s such an uplifting experience to be here,” Chaminade senior Martin Moore told a large group during a morning panel after he narrated his own college experiences, from choosing a school to paying for tuition and choosing a major in international relations.
Axel Defngin grew up in Hilo before moving to Yap with his family. He attended Chaminade for a semester before transferring to UH-Hilo. Being at the university, he said, had “helped give me pride in being a Pacific Islander.” That sentiment was something he hoped to pass on to others as Defngin is project manager for the university’s Pacific Student Media storytelling initiative.
The college students didn’t shy away from discussing the more daunting aspects of college, from practical difficulties like cost to more abstract matters like uncertainty about what to do once making it to campus.
“That’s okay, that’s completely fine,” said UH-Manoa graduate student Yu Suenaga. College, he said, “helps you build yourself and find out what you want to do.”
For the high schoolers, talking to people already in university is “a way for them to really be mentored and guided, and see students from their own language groups succeeding,” Raatior said.
Professionals from the Micronesian community, working in fields like education and social services, also held panels, as did members of the police department and prosecutor’s office. Keynote speaker Diana Ruegilin Machado, who is from Yap, is a registered nurse at the Hilo Medical Center.
“We’re blessed to have really caring people in the community who’ve stepped up to support it,” Raatior said.
To that end, part of Youth Empowerment Day is stressing the importance of students being active participants in community leadership and service.
“All in all, we just try to do our best to try to provide an experience for these students to change their mindset to something more positive,” Raatior said.
Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune -herald.com.