Often Ignored, Pacific Islanders Fight for Academic Success On Their Own

Often Ignored, Pacific Islanders Fight for Academic Success On Their Own

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LONG BEACH -- Kulia I Ka Nu’u. This was the motto of Hawaii’s Queen Kapi’olani, one she told her people, which means, “Strive for the very top of the mountain; strive for excellence.” It's a message that still has relevance for the U.S.-based Pacific Islander community that more often than not is left to overcome challenges on its own.

For years Pacific Islanders from Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and Guam have been misunderstood in the U.S., due in no small part to their inclusion under the umbrella term Asian Pacific Islander (API).  With use of the term becoming widespread since the 1990's, the specific struggles faced by the Islander community have been obscured.  Lumped together with other Asians and stereotyped as a model minority, Pacific Islander issues have been left out, for example, of the national discourse on education.

The reality is that Pacific Islanders (PI) are only half as likely as the general population to have graduated from college, and are five times less likely than other Asians to hold an advanced degree. Like some Latino and African-American communities, many in the Pacific Islander community face economic and structural barriers to academic success.



“As communities of color, we’re faced with a lot of the same issues,” said Joey Quenga, who is Chamorro from Guam and host of The BBQ, a monthly radio show for the PI community that runs out of the Pacific Islander Ethnic Museum in Long Beach. “You’re talking about impoverished communities and you’re talking about gangs.”

One of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the nation, 23 percent of all Pacific Islanders living in the U.S. currently reside in California, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Many of them live in West Long Beach, and surrounding cities like Carson, Cerritos and Oceanside.

Pacific Islanders have the highest high school dropout rate in Long Beach—with rates at about 10 percent, compared to a three percent rate for both Asian and white students. Nine out of 10 Pacific Islander students are not prepared for college-level coursework, according to a study by Education Trust-West.

“Many come to the States and are unable to immediately find a well-paying job,” said Dan Hatori, Project Director of UCLA’s Pacific Islander Education and Retention Program, in an email to VoiceWaves. “This leads to students being enrolled in public schools with curriculum which may be less rigorous than other schools.”

Violence and gang affiliation may be another barrier for some PI youth. Violence has become a pressing issue in the community as the Tongan Crip Gang, Sons of Samoa, and other gangs roam the tough parts of L.A. County, Hatori said. One of those areas is West Long Beach.

“When you don’t have much money, you live in areas where it’s gang infested and there’s a lot of crime,” said West Long Beach resident Seila Tuliau, the mother of a former Sons of Samoa gang member. “It’s the only area you can afford to live. It has a big effect on growing up because those are the people you hang out with.”

Hatori suggested that more awareness is needed of the specific issues confronting the Pacific Islander community.

“Being grouped in with all Asians when using the term API (Asian Pacific Islander) in statistics to judge whether a particular race or ethnicity is doing well or not is often deceptive,” Hatori said. “People who are not very knowledgeable on the issues the Pacific Island community face will look at API numbers and think Pacific Islanders are not struggling at all,” he added.

Such misconceptions are having horrid effects on Pacific Islanders’ prospects for scholarships, advocates argue, and therefore college access. Many scholarship programs decline applications by Pacific Islanders, mistakenly assuming those students are as privileged as their peers from other Asian backgrounds. When, in fact, 19 percent of Tongans are currently living at the poverty rate.

Despite such barriers, many remain steadfast in their dreams for success and continue to see education as a path to their dreams.

“I’m going back to school,” said Eric Tuliau, who joined Sons of Samoa at age 15 but is not involved with the gang anymore. “I’m going to get my GED. I also hope my little brothers and sisters go to school.”

Quenga has also left behind a legacy. His fraternity, TAO, was founded by Pacific Islander students in 1997 and continues to exist at various campuses today. Members of the fraternity are now employed at UCLA and in the White House, and the name TAO has significance for young aspiring Pacific Islander students today.

“It’s a word in the Pacific Islands that means warrior,” Quenga said. “We see ourselves as warriors here in the new land. Instead of spears and slings in fighting the enemy, our weapon of choice is a bachelors, a masters, or a PHD.”

VoiceWaves is a youth-led community news project in Long Beach, founded by New America Media.
 

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