Hawaii study abroad course too important to cut

The multi-cultural communication course enjoys an afternoon with the students and faculty of the Kekaha Learning Center. (Zach Pagano/TommieMedia)

Normally, when people think of Hawaii they think of grass skirts, hula and relaxing on the beach.

But this January I was fortunate enough to study in Hawaii with the “Multicultural Communication in Diverse Organizations” course. It was a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. But even after 12 successful years as a class, it is one of the study abroad courses being cut next year. I find it extremely unfortunate that other students will not be able to have this experience like I did.

Many people ask, “Why Hawaii?” We studied in Hawaii because of the microcosm of multiculturalism that our 50th state has to offer.

Our course examined the concepts, theories and realities of the way individuals and groups work and communicate in organizations where culture and multiculturalism play prominent roles.

We spent our first 14 days on Oahu. During this time, we had classroom sessions, guest presenters and guided tours. Our first-hand experience with culture at places like Iolani Palace and the Honolulu Academy of the Arts was unlike any we could ever receive in a classroom in Minnesota.

But the most important and beneficial part of our course was our service-learning project on Kauai. We spent the end of our class working with the Ke Kula Ni’ihau O Kekaha Learning Center. It is a school that educates students in kindergarten through 12th grade, established to strengthen the Ni’ihau dialect of the Hawaiian language.

These students welcomed us with open arms from the time we first walked through the door. We were instantly treated like ‘Ohana,’ which means family in Hawaiian. Right from the start, they couldn’t stop giving us hugs and gifts.

I first realized the impact of our course on the Kekaha students as they began telling stories about past St. Thomas students who had visited their school. Their past experiences with Tommies left them with a positive attitude toward education. The trust and eagerness to learn is what made our group projects so successful.

The students from our course worked with Kekaha students in every grade. Some groups worked on painting, while others worked on traditional Hawaiian chants. My group of sixth graders drew pictures to correspond with an ancient Hawaiian legend. We worked on memorization, articulation and enunciation to record the legend as a voice-over to go with the pictures.

Our last day with the students was very emotional. We spent our last few hours having a picnic on the beach. During this time, some of the Kekaha students shared some of their traditional chant and hula with us. Then the time came when we had to say our goodbyes. Tears fell from the eyes of both the Kekaha students as well as students in our course. They told us they would miss us, and they couldn’t wait for more students to come learn with them next year.

The news of the course cancellation came a couple days later. My fellow classmates and I were devastated when our professors told us.

Our professors told us the students and faculty at the Kekaha school were currently unaware of the news. However, we were told that Haunani Seward, director of the school, had written St. Thomas a letter a few days earlier.

In her letter, Seward explains the importance of our service learning project.

“Our association with the University of St. Thomas over the last 12 years has indeed been an exceptional learning opportunity for our students and hopefully for your students and staff alike,” Seward wrote. “The students enrolled in the multicultural communication program are helping us provide a rich and diverse learning opportunity for our students.”

It has taken years to build up the trust necessary to create such a significant project for them and for us. Our work at the Kekaha school incorporated meaningful partnerships into our coursework. Receiving the same multicultural experience in a service-learning project back in Minnesota would be impossible.

This course is too important to cut. I sincerely hope the university reverses its decision and provides another opportunity for this course to make a difference in the lives of St. Thomas students and students at the Kekaha Learning Center for years to come.

“With your consideration we wish to continue this learning exchange long into the future,” Seward wrote.

And this is a learning exchange that is beneficial not only to the students in Hawaii, but to the development of St. Thomas students as morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.

Zach Pagano can be reached at paga7147@stthomas.edu.

11 Replies to “Hawaii study abroad course too important to cut”

  1. I am so happy to see this article published. I was one of Zach’s 19 classmates this January and I too am deeply saddened by the decision to cut the class. Coming back, I have had to face a lot of tongue-in-cheek comments about how “tough” the class must be, etc. No one understands how vital the location of the class is to the content and the overall purpose of the course. Honestly, it upsets me because it is so hard to communicate to others what valuable perspectives and life skills that it uncovers in just one month. I wish more people knew what a big deal it should be that we may have been the last group of students to have such a beneficial and meaningful experience. If more students of past years knew this class has been cut I know they would feel as passionate as our 2010 group does about this issue. If it is too late to reverse the decision this year, I really hope something can be done for the following year.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Peterson. I didn’t travel to Hawaii this January, but I have studied abroad twice in my life before through People to People, once to the islands of Fiji. To be exposed to the culture of Pacific Islanders and to gain such fresh, important perspectives is far too eye-opening to cut. To broaden the horizons of young adults is the purpose of a liberal arts education, and this study abroad course is an invaluable incarnation of that principle.

  3. I am extremely disappointed that this course is being cut. I was anticipating taking it next year and I know others were as well. I have heard nothing but positive feedback from students who have taken Multicultural Communication in Diverse Organizations in Hawaii. If there is any sort of petition to keep it on for 2011 it should be on here for UST students!

  4. I was one of Zach’s class mates that went to Hawaii for the Multi-cultural communications course and feel that it could not have been stated any better.  The service learning project was, by far, the best part of the entire class.  I never imagined that I would get so attached to the kids in just three days.  I have worked with kids all my life, being a nanny for three years, and working with may kids programs and never in the first three days have I ever felt so welcome, so close, and so loved than by the kids and the Kekaha Learning Center.  I was devastated when I heard the news and cannot imagine those kids hearing the news that the students from St. Thomas will not be returning next year.  I sure do hope that St. Thomas will reconsider their decision because this class was more than I ever thought it would be!

  5. Working with those kids was an experience no other study abroad course can offer at St. Thomas. While on the island locals are amazed that we even know of those people let alone work with them. To cut this course is not only unfair to future St. Thomas students but to the students at Kekaha Learning Center as well. This course provides such a great experience for us to help sustain a culture struggling to keep itself alive – cutting it due to budget issues calls for a detailed explanation as to where that money is needed…. Great article Zach

  6. I sympathize with your viewpoints, and I agree, as someone who got to study abroad for a semester at St. Thomas, that studying abroad is a very good thing.
    Unfortunately, we are dealing with probably the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. Millions of people have lost their jobs, and St. Thomas has kept increasing tuition by at least 6% each year for the past four or five years. That’s a significant tuition increase, and this trend of hiking tuition is unsustainable if St. Thomas wants low and middle-income students to continue to be able to afford to attend UST.
    Sometimes tough choices must be made.
    Keeping these J-Term study abroad classes, and the resultant tuition increases to sustain them may mean the difference between a student being able to afford and not able to afford a UST education. So, you need to ask yourself which is the greater good, and act accordingly.
    A Catholic education should be financially accessible for all qualified students who seek it. To begrudge someone a Catholic education based on financial reasons, in my opinion, is incompatible with the mission of a Catholic university.

  7. Though I think you bring about some important issues surrounding St. Thomas Michael, I think you’re missing the point of the article. St. Thomas is cutting a select number of J-term abroad courses – the concern of this article, which my classmates and I share, is that the content of this particular course is too important to deny students access to. Though all of the courses offered by the university provide unique and beneficial experiences to students, this course goes beyond most of those courses in that the service learning project gives students a unique opportunity to work within a very exclusive community of people focusing on keeping their struggling culture alive. This course over its 12 year span has consistently yielded successful results, which is why it is confusing that the university made this decision. Of course qualified students should have access to education at St. Thomas, but to cut programs that have proven success and help both students and those less fortunate should not be the area which individuals in charge of budget cuts should focus their efforts.

  8. I haven’t studied abroad yet, but I was hoping to take the COJO Hawaii course in Jan. 2011. Now I am very disappointed that I will be unable to do so. UST prides itself on having one of the best programs in the nation for study abroad opportunities and it’s a shame that they have had to cut this course along with so many others. I really hope something can be done because I know a lot of other people who are disappointed by this news as well.

    Great article, Zach!

  9. I took this Jterm class in 2008 and it still remains one of the best experiences of my life. I feel sorry for everyone who will never get the chance to experience what I did during that month.

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