photo of group of 12 people who are Pasifika fellows and ambassadors, faculty and mentors.

Leading in Pacific Islander studies

Starting in the Fall 2020 Semester, the University of Utah will offer an Interdisciplinary Certificate in Pacific Islands (PI) Studies. The certificate is open to all majors and coursework will explore the geography, history culture, politics and contemporary concerns of the Indigenous Pacific and the global Pacific Islander diaspora.

“Per capita, Utah has the largest number of Pacific Islanders in the continental U.S.,” said Hokulani Aikau, an associate professor in gender studies and ethnic studies as well as director of Pacific Islands studies at the U. “Pacific Islanders have been here consistently since the 1880s in large part because of the role of missionary work in the Pacific through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Aikau, who identifies as Pacific Islander, grew up in Utah and attended the U from 1989-1994. At the time, she said there were not any courses on Pacific Island studies and no real group, community or infrastructure in place for Pacific Islanders. In 2016, U leaders launched a Pacific Islander Faculty Hiring Initiative to change that.

“I was hired as part of that initiative,” said Aikau. “It was a cluster hire of four faculty in four different colleges over two years. In 2017, Dr. Maile Arvin, also hired as part of the intiative, and I worked with faculty and staff on events intended to remind the larger Pacific Islander community that this hiring initiative is for them and their kids.”

“When I think about Pacific Island studies at the U, I’m speaking specifically about building programs that will attract my nieces and nephews and my own children to attend the U and to have a culturally relevant curriculum available to them. It’s about transforming the university and making it a place where our Pacific Islander kids can come and feel like they belong, which we know is essential to their success and the success of other students of color.”

In 2018, a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation allowed for an increased focus on recruiting and retaining Pacific Islander students. The certificate, Aikau said, is part of that larger effort.

“A certificate in Pacific Islander studies will enhance any major that we have at the U because it integrates political, social and cultural analysis of race, indigeneity and coloniality with other fields of study,” said Aikau. “The courses that comprise the certificate provide a critical lens for all students interested in fields such as public health, sustainability, climate change or engineering because the issues of concern in the Indigenous Pacific and the diaspora are relevant beyond the region or the single case study. Indeed, attention to these dimensions of power is essential in the political movement for black lives matter.”

Students must complete 18 credit hours of coursework for the certificate. Learn more about the Pacific Islands Studies Certificate in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation here.