MISSOULA – When University of Montana senior Ka’au Ahina launched a campus club in 2017 for students of Pacific Island descent, the goal was simple: provide an opportunity for students like him to gather and celebrate shared traditions and one another’s company.
“When I looked around campus, I tended not to see people who looked like us,” he said. “I wanted to create a place that was both safe and sacred.”
He assumed the group would be small, what with less than 1% of the UM student population identifying as Pacific-Islander.
And then, he said, “people just started coming out.”
Today, the Pacific Islanders Club can draw up to 100 people to its events and includes a wide swath of participants of all ages, both on campus and in the community.
The club is one of nearly 200 student groups recognized by the Associated Students of UM. Students are encouraged to join these campus organizations, which represent an array of interests – from sports to music – with many of the groups receiving direct funding from ASUM.
The Pacific Islanders Club has sponsored potlucks, food demonstrations and gatherings around the winter fire pits on the Oval.
“Sundays we teach Hula and our language,” said club treasurer Isaac La’a. “The majority of the dancers are not from the Pacific Islands.” La’a, a military veteran who graduates this year with a degree in management information systems, said it’s been a rewarding experience to see the genuine interest participants have shown in knowing more about the traditions of Pacific Islanders.
“We’ve created our club for social gatherings, listen to music and eat, but people come to our space to learn,” said La’a, a native of Hawaii. “They ask a lot of questions about our language and our traditions.”
Because the learning process is often better done in person, the Pacific Islanders Club also organizes group trips to Hawaii. This past winter break, students went to three islands and spent time with the families of club members.
“It’s a great hands-on cultural experience,” said Ahina, also a Hawaiian native who graduates this spring with a degree in communications. “They actually get to see what our songs are talking about.”
Jessica Ponce, the club’s social media manager, participated in the recent winter break trip to the islands and said she looked forward to the planned volunteer activity. On this trip, the group helped feed homeless residents on New Year’s Day.
“We live by the phrase ‘malama kekahi i kekahi’ which means to take care of one another. In everything we do as a club, we've navigated with the mindset of sharing our aloha, our love, our life, with everyone that comes to us,” said Ponce, who is of Filipino descent and majoring in psychology with a minor in international development studies. “Traditionally with every Pacific Tour that we've done, there's been some variation of this philanthropy work, whether it’s volunteering on a farm or again giving back to the homeless community of the island that we are on.”
The club’s student adviser, Ruth Williams, gets choked up when talking about the group, considering them “her kids,” as she puts it. She’s participated in many of their events and credits club members with decorating a drab corner of her office to give it more of an island feel.
“They expect excellence out of the executive team and club,” said Williams, a collections specialist in UM’s business office. “They are just an amazing group, and they do so much for the campus and community.”
Club co-founder Jolyn Tausa, a UM psychology graduate now living in her native O’ahu, said the growth of the club and the curiosity of fellow students to learn more about Pacific Island traditions has been gratifying. So, too, has been the interest from groups representing other races and cultures.
“We started out, of course, with food,” she said, “but it’s become so much more.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.