Debra Petersen and Tim Scully, Professors of Communication and Journalism
As we walked from the bus to the Ke Kula Ni’ihau O KeKaha Learning Center, our usually boisterous students fell silent. Were they looking for something to reassure them that this service-learning experience would not be uncomfortable or disappointing? Then we heard the sound of conch shells announcing our arrival. Somebody said, “Please leave your slippers at the door.” We complied with the gentle request, taking off our flip-flops. The next step was to enter a world that was at once familiar and strange—a place where aloha and ohana were more than “hello” and “family”—they were a way of life. Our students left behind much more than their slippers that day. They left behind their preconceptions about Hawaiian culture and found new friends in the children of Ni’ihau, the “forbidden” island off the southwest coast of Kaua’i. Please read the excerpts from Matt’s and Erika’s papers to understand their transformation. They said it much better than we can.
We had been to the school in southwestern Kaua’i before—five times for Debra and two times for Tim. Each time the KeKaha Learning Center experience has been magical for us and for our students. The love for each other that emanates from the Hawaiian students is nurtured by the Center’s teachers and staff, led by director Haunani Seward.
Most of the school’s students are from Ni’ihau, the “forbidden” island off the southwestern coast of Kaua’i. Non-native Hawaiians have very limited access to the island, because the owners, the Robinson family, want it preserved for Hawaiian culture (http://www.aloha-hawaii.com/kauai/niihau/).
A challenge each year is to prepare our students for the Kekaha Learning Center experience while maintaining the mystery that would soon transform them. The J-term UMAIE course that would become Hawai’i: Multi-Cultural Communication in Diverse Organizations, was started over twenty years ago by Dr. Wayne Hensley and his colleagues at Bethel University. They also developed the relationship with the Ni’ihau community. Other UST faculty members who worked with the Kekaha Learning Center over the past twelve years are Bernard Armada, Carol Bruess, Ellen Riordan, and Kevin Sauter. Of the more than one hundred and twenty UMAIE students who have participated in this service-learning experience, most have been UST students.
One of our primary course objectives is to understand the vital relationship between language and culture. In this bi-lingual environment, we experience this interplay between language and culture first-hand, in a venue accessible to only a few. Please read Haunani Seward’s letter regarding the uniqueness of our experience at Kekaha.
Throughout the year, we work closely with Haunani and her staff to create a service-learning project that simultaneously meets their learning objectives and our course objectives. Four or five of our students partner with the teacher and students of each age group.
In 2012, the Kekaha students were learning about Makahiki, an ancient harvest celebration, in preparation for a day of Makahiki games with students from a K-12 Hawaiian language immersion school and students from a preschool Hawaiian language immersion school at Poipou Beach State Park. Our students helped some of the younger students string kukui nuts. Not only were these students creating necklaces for the Makahiki festival; this was also a math lesson. Learning about the flora and fauna of ancient times was a biology lesson for some of the older students and their UST partners. We used leaves dropped from native plants on the school grounds (not picked from the plants) to make prints on fabric, creating unique sashes that everyone wore to the festival.
At the Makahiki harvest festival, we joined the students from these three schools in games that had been part of rituals and ceremonies, including contests of strength and balance, such as tug of war and foot-pushing your “opponent” out of a designated circle. Throwing stones and spears for distance and accuracy were hard to master, but competition was not the focus. Everyone cheered for every contestant. The festival ended as it had begun, with chanting that reminded everyone of our connection to nature and each other. A nutritious homemade lunch was followed by fun on the beach and in the water. If this experience sounds too good to be true, consider the idyllic setting, the irresistible children of Ni’ihau, the caring staff of the Kekaha Learning Center and, finally, our students, who were ready to be transformed.
By the time we arrived at the Kekaha School, we had been in Hawai’i for 17 days. The two weeks in Honolulu were spent in the classroom, at Pearl Harbor, in Chinatown, at Iolani Palace, at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and the Bishop Museum of Natural History—places where our students learned about history and culture immersed in the salad bowl that is Hawai’i. A UST alumni panel and tour of the Hawai’i Supreme Court by a justice alumnus further enlightened us about the uniqueness of Hawai’i and its cultural diversity.
We left for Kaua’i on Martin Luther King Day. The next day we learned about hula on a sacred piece of ground in a torrential rain. What might have been uncomfortable in Minnesota is somehow uplifting there, an unforgettable experience.
The goals and objectives from our course syllabus are ambitious:
- to introduce students to basic concepts of culture and aspects of multi-cultural communication.
- to introduce students to primary concepts and variables of organizations.
- to increase students‘ awareness of, and their ability to, employ multi-cultural communication skills.
- to increase their awareness of their personal cultural values and the values of other cultures.
- to help students determine how they might become a more effective communicator in multi-cultural situations and in organizations with multi-cultural audiences, such as those we experience in Hawai‘i.
- to learn about elements of Hawaiian culture, including, history, art, tourism, food, music, environment, and education.
- to utilize guest presenters in their area of expertise.
- to give students the opportunity to focus on areas of Hawaiian culture of particular interest to them.
- to provide students with a variety of learning experiences, including traditional classroom settings, guided tours, panel discussions, and meeting with university professors.
- to create and implement a successful community-based learning experience at the Ke Kula Ni’ihau O Kekaha Learning Center on Kaua’i.
By the time we arrive at the Ke Kula Ni’ihau O Kekaha Learning Center, our students understand the importance of cultural diversity and its rich contribution to our global community. When they first hug a child at the school they have sealed their fate. They understand that what is different about us deserves our respect and what is the same—our humanity—makes us one ohana, one family, forever.