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New major looks to decolonize higher education

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(SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.) — Many Americans are unaware of racism's history in the Pacific but a new two-year degree at the City College of San Francisco will shed light on the role race has played in every facet of life for Islanders and people of color in the U.S.A.

The new Associate of Arts degree in Critical Pacific Islands & Oceania Studies is the culmination of nearly two decades of work by past students and faculty, said Dr. David Ga'oupu Matthew Palaita, Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at CCSF.

"When the program was developed, students wanted to combine Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory — the school of thought in which inequality in American society and many American institutions — education, economics, citizenship — can be explained through the lens of race," he told tautalatala.

"In other words, race and the history of racism in the country can explain things like colonization of the Pacific, migration, segregation in the housing market, the kinds of jobs Islanders get, or social relations."

It is the first major of its kind in the state of California which is home to the largest population of Samoans and Pacific Islanders in the continental United States.

"In a funny way, the program is also a critique of diversity and inclusion in higher education," Dr. Palaita said.

It is deemed "critical" on a number of levels — its integration of Critical Race Theory and "on another level, the term critical was also added to highlight the pressing needs of our communities in higher education," he adds.

The critical needs are: more tools to build a community, the critical need to build curriculum and courses, the critical need for Islanders to excel in higher education and close the achievement gap.

"And most importantly, the critical need to analyze academic scholarship by westerners that have structured much of the way we think of ourselves as Pacific peoples," Dr. Palaita noted.

The new program legitimizes Pacific students and their role in higher education, he explained.

"This is huge for our community in three ways: it creates intellectual spaces in academia for Pacific students, it helps to support closing the achievement gaps for our Islander students, and it provides a model for how our Ocean cultures can be keys to success rather than an obstacle," Dr. Palaita said.

A topic much discussed in his doctoral dissertation, he says Pacific Studies is important to him "because there is a kind of historical trauma that is rooted in the way western education arrived on the shores of the Pacific."

"That project in itself was very destructive and in many other cases very brutal. One only need to look at the histories of our indigenous communities of the U.S. and Native Hawaiians, and the ways that generation was forced into boarding schools," Dr. Palaita explained.

"The result was self-hate, physical and mental abuse, cultural amnesia, isolation, and a host of other atrocities that come out of western education's dark history with indigenous peoples."

He continues: “Indigenous communities preserve knowledge through oral traditional methods. Our ancestors have passed down stories of those atrocities onto younger generations with the narrative that education or schooling is not the safest and ideal place for our children.”

This historical trauma, Dr. Palaita points out, "can explain our struggles to retain Pacific students in education, motivational issues, etc. I know it’s more complicated than that, but you cannot count out the social and mental trauma from years of racism."

"Over time, education becomes known as something that only 'smart' PI students can do. That is now changing and we are seeing more and more Pacific students re-imagining themselves in education/school," Dr. Palaita explained.

"For the first time, Islander students are making education as part of their identity. Creating a Pacific Studies program helps to foment that process for them."

Creating a Pacific Studies program helps to strengthen that process.

That, in itself, is decolonizing.

The Pacific Studies program was established in 2014 when CCSF first launched a certificate that focused on a student’s ability to fulfill GE areas — the foundational and breadth of courses a student fulfills in order to complete a certificate or an Associate’s degree.

It was also designed to close the achievement gap of this population and to move Islander students through CCSF and on to transferring to a four-year university.

"In the years before that, there have been many discussions around how to support Islander students and increase success rates," Dr. Palaita said. "At CCSF specifically, and I suspect at other California community colleges, Islander students were not going through the school smoothly. Most were either stuck or lost."

The result, he says, was that most dropped out and left school entirely.

“After years of pushing by Pacific students since 2000 (and years before that) we identified several elements that needed to be institutionalized at CCSF to support Pacific students," he said.

Courses and culturally relevant curricula needed to be created and spaces for cultural productions had to be incorporated. In addition, a community had to be built and an academic program established.

"These took time to create because student leaders move on and new students come to CCSF and this creates continuity issues," said Dr. Palaita. "One of the only ways to establish some kind of awareness and continuity is to have faculty that can teach and build programs. This is where I come in."

In 2007, he began to work at CCSF teaching the college's first Pacific Studies course that was created in 2002. 

"Earlier Pacific Islander professors were teaching the same course until my arrival," Dr. Palaita said. "From the time I arrived in 2007 until 2014, it took me seven years to study the institution, work with faculty across the disciplines and other academic departments, and study how academic programs are created at the state level."

All this, while he was completing his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley and earning a part-time salary.

"For most teachers and graduate students, this is unsustainable and most often times, teachers in my shoes would leave. I decided not to," Dr. Palaita said. "I chose to stay to see that we could gather all the students' ideas, their desires, their aspirations, and turn it into a program."

The result is California's first Pacific Islander learning community at CCSF called the VASA Program — a program that provides student support services with a Pacific Islander focus.

Dr. Palaita is Coordinator of the VASA Equity Program.

"Once that was built, we then focused on a 17-unit state-approved certificate that would act as transfer pathway by using a mixture of Pacific Studies courses and courses from other disciplines," he said.

"The design of that certificate fulfilled major GE areas that students needed in order to work towards transferring or securing an AA. Four years later, in 2018, we elevated the certificate into an AA degree major in Pacific Studies, making it the first major of its kind in California."

Former VASA students and CCSF alumni are now the professors of Pacific Studies courses at San Francisco State University and are in the process of creating a Bachelor of Arts program. To start them off, the university has hired Dr. Palaita to create their minor program in Pacific Studies.

Says the proud Waipahu High School Marauder: "This will now effectively force four-year universities to open or at least begin developing Bachelor degree programs at their respective universities so that students with this AA can transfer into a Pacific Studies major."

Learn more at ccsf.edu/pacificislands.