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The U is in the process of hiring two new full-time faculty in Pacific Islander studies and recently created a new scholarship aimed at recruiting and retaining talented Pacific Islander students.

By Estela Hernandez, public relations and events specialist, University of Utah Office for Equity and Diversity and Annalisa Purser, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications

The University of Utah recently announced its intent to build the top Pacific Islander program in the continental United States. As part of the initiative, the U is in the process of hiring two new full-time faculty in Pacific Islander studies and recently created a new scholarship aimed at recruiting and retaining talented Pacific Islander students.

pacific-islander-program-2Utah has one of the oldest and largest Pacific Islander communities in the U.S. In fact, Utah has the largest number of Pacific Islanders in the continental U.S. per-capita, and U.S. Census figures show the population increased by more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2010. Pacific Islanders have lived continuously in Utah since 1870.

“Because of Utah’s long history with Pacific Islanders and the strong network of professionals, community groups and associations within the Pacific Islander community, the U is well positioned to strengthen these partnerships and build the top program in the continental United States,” said Adrian Viliami Bell, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and co-director of the Pacific Islander studies initiative at the U.

Despite their strong presence in the state, Pacific Islanders make up one of the smallest proportions of the U’s full-time students. This does not reflect the trends seen at the high school level. Pacific Islander high school students are graduating at rates equal to that of other racial/ethnic groups in Utah. Additionally, of all the high school conferences the U’s hosts, the one for Pacific Islander high school students is the most well attended, with nearly 700 participants in 2016.

“This work is long overdue,” Bell said. “Pacific Islanders are an important part of our state and have a variety of skills, knowledge and experience to share. We want to work more closely with them, and we want students to have a place on campus and to bring their perspectives to all disciplines offered here.”

Earlier this year, a group of Pacific Islander faculty and staff from across campus came together in an effort to bring more attention to Pacific Islander studies and advocate for more Pacific Islander faculty. The group connected with leaders from the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, the National Tongan American Society and other groups and organized the U’s first Pacific Islander Symposium.

The symposium was held Nov. 11 and featured Kalani Raphael, a Hawaiian nephrologist and associate professor at the U, and keynote speaker Nia Aitaoto, co-director of the Center for Pacific Islander Health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, northwest campus. The symposium celebrated the launch of the Pacific Islander initiative and provided an opportunity for the U’s Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Coalition to gather feedback from the community and key stakeholders about the design, implementation and community involvement with upcoming phases.

“Pacific Islanders have been an integral part of Utah’s sociohistory, but not much is acknowledged in terms of our substantial, ongoing contributions to the state,” said Jake Fitisemanu, Jr., associate instructor in Ethnic Studies and member of the coalition. “The U’s Pacific Islander studies initiative is an exciting first step in expanding this knowledge base on campus and throughout the community as a whole.”

The initiative will take a three-pronged approach: Collaborating and serving the state’s Pacific Islander community, increasing the diversity of the university’s faculty by hiring scholars whose expertise lies in the area of Pacific Islander studies and providing scholarships and mentorship opportunities to students of Pacific Islander backgrounds.

“We are fortunate to have a large and dynamic community of Pacific Islanders in Utah who are interested in working with the university,” said Matt Basso, associate professor in gender studies and history and co-director of the Pacific Islander studies initiative. “We want this program to be defined by a collaborative and reciprocal relationship with the local Pacific Islander community and driven by their desires.”

Current Pacific Islander research at the U spans across campus, focusing on health, education, linguistics, cultural studies, social work and more. One of the two new Pacific Islander studies faculty positions will be in the U’s School for Cultural and Social Transformation, which opened this fall and is the first school in the Intermountain West to focus on the intersection of race, gender and social justice. The other hire will be in the Department of History. Both positions are currently open, and the community is invited to participate in the hiring process by attending the candidates’ research presentations at the beginning of 2018. Information will be available here.

To learn more about the initiative or to donate to the Pacific Islander scholarship, contact