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Initiative Aims to Create Pacific Islander Community

by Kate Mather
Initiative Aims to Create Pacific Islander Community
Project coordinator Brittany Valdez introduces a panel on militarization in the Pacific Islands.

“What is it like to be you on this campus?”

The provocative question that Asian Pacific American Student Services staff asked USC students, community activists, faculty and staff last year marked the start of a new initiative that encourages unity among Pacific Islander students on campus.

A year later, the Promoting Unity, Liberation and Education initiative is steadily growing and making a name for itself at USC. Designed to increase dialogue about issues facing Pacific Islanders, the initiative’s goal is to foster a stronger sense of community for Pacific Islander students on campus.

“We had this idea of creating a place that would be a resource and a voice and a place where we can share more about the culture and show others at USC what it means to be a Pacific Islander and why that’s important,” said Brittany Valdez, a graduate student studying social work and project coordinator for the program. “We want people to be more aware about Polynesia, what’s going on there and the importance of its history, present and future.”

Promoting Unity recently hosted its third event of the year, a panel discussion exploring the history of militarization in the Pacific Islands. The event was attended by students, faculty and community members.

“The large turnout from a varied audience shows how much support exists for the initiative,” said Sumun Pendakur, director of the Asian Pacific American Student Services. “There’s a feeling of appreciation for the dialogue we’re trying to facilitate, but it also lets people know – whether they’re students on campus or community members – that there is support here at USC.”

That sense of support is key, she added. There currently are approximately 130 undergraduate Pacific-Islander students enrolled at USC out of a total population of about 17,000, which can result in a sense of disconnect from the larger university community.

“Of course they have that Trojan pride, but there also are some feelings of loneliness and alienation,” Pendakur said.

Valdez and Pendakur said they hope that Promoting Unity will benefit the larger Pacific Islander community in Southern California as well, particularly by becoming a resource for Pacific Islander high school students who hope to come to USC.

“I used to work in admissions, and I didn’t see many Pacific-Islander students come through the doors of USC. To me that was really sad,” Valdez said. “We thought this type of initiative could be a pipeline to a community here on campus, where we bring high school students to come and learn about the university.”

Another goal is to dispel some of the negative stereotypes that can surround the Pacific Islander community. The group’s first event last semester, titled “We Are Leaders,” brought in Pacific-Islander professionals to tell their success stories.

“We wanted to move away from that stereotype that Pacific Islanders have high incarceration rates, high dropout rates and low numbers going into higher education,” Valdez said. “We wanted people who have gone into the medical field or law – people who had been really successful – to be examples for younger Pacific Islanders.”

At the end of each event, attendees are asked to complete feedback forms, which then are used in future planning. This is crucial to the Promoting Unity goal of being an organic, dialogue-based initiative, according to Pendakur.

“I can base everything off statistics and literature and research, but it’s not the same thing as having that rooted connection,” Pendakur said. “We have a team led by Pacific Islanders, and we take that – along with the focus groups, the dialogue and feedback from each event – to go back and really take a look at those things so we know how to best move forward.”

As the initiative continues to evolve, organizers said they are getting positive feedback from a wide range of people – most importantly, however, from students.

“Our Pacific-Islander students are so excited to hear about what we are doing and have almost immediately said, ‘Yes, I want to be part of this,’ because this is something they just haven’t had,” Valdez said.

Initiative Aims to Create Pacific Islander Community

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