Until two months ago, the University of Michigan did not have a student group to represent Pacific Islanders and students from Oceania communities, a region comprising thousands of islands in the Central and South Pacific Ocean. However, Chandani Wiersba, a program coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Initiatives, said she found that these students wanted opportunities to connect with each other when she was planning the Asian and Pacific Islander graduation ceremony for the Class of 2021. In February 2021, Wiersba hosted a community conversation for Pacific Islander students.
“I hosted a community conversation and we ended up doing those meetings about once a month,” Wiersba said. “They were an incredible space because people found out they shared culture or shared language, shared identity, but also shared frustrations.”
Wiersba said as the Winter 2021 semester came to an end, she took a step back and began encouraging volunteers to lead the conversations. She said several of the students began talking in those conversation hours about the possibility of making a more permanent student organization to continue their discussions.
The Oceania Student Association celebrated its two-month anniversary after officially registering as a voluntary student organization on Sep. 12. Before the Fall 2021 semester, there had not been an organization specifically for students who identify with Indigenous ocean communities since the previous Pacific Islander Student Association became inactive in 2016.
According to OSA Vice President Malu Castro, Environment and Sustainability doctoral student, Oceania is a geographical region that encompasses several individual island nations in the Pacific region; it generally also includes Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.
Castro said choosing to put “Oceania” rather than “Pacific Islander” in the name of the organization is more inclusive of the Indigenous communities in the region. Castro said individuals within these communities might not identify themselves as “islanders” or appreciate possible connotations of the word: namely that islands are isolated from the rest of society.
“There’s a lot of issues around how island nations, and island communities are seen as remote, as kind of closed off from the rest of the world,” Castro said. “There’s actually very robust wayfinding and communication and travel between these communities that … is actively going on between these regions.”
Castro also noted that Pacific Islander identities often get grouped together with Asian American identities, such as Asian American Pacific Islander. He emphasized that Indigenous peoples from Oceania communities and Asian Americans are ethnically and culturally distinct, and the AAPI label can understate this diversity.
“(AAPI) is a coalition that has now been appropriated to erase and simplify both Asian identities and — I’d say more so to some extent — Pacific identities, Oceaniac identities,” Castro said.
Aia Hawari, a program manager for Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, was appointed as an advisor to OSA in June. Hawari told The Daily OSA that she spent the majority of the summer navigating the logistical challenges of starting a new student organization. Hawari said the most important aspect OSA had to consider to ensure its success was member engagement.
In Fall 2020, 21 students at the University — including undergraduate, graduate and professional students — identified as Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, making it the smallest recorded ethnic demographic on campus. Hawari said MESA worked closely with OSA leadership to make sure potential members would be able to find and connect with the organization.
“It was very clear that the students wanted to create this organization to allow for community-building and to create a point of contact for Pacific Islander students, but also students who are interested and identify with the community,” Hawari said.
OSA President Sarah Mcnally, Public Health doctoral student, echoed Hawari’s comments about the importance of making a space specifically for Oceanian students easily accessible. Prospective Oceanian students should know there is a community waiting for them at the University and current students should feel academically and culturally supported, Mcnally said.
“It’s important that (Oceanian students) have a space within the University that’s safe and supportive, where they can engage with their culture and share it with everyone else,” Mcnally said. “Also, it’s important to have a community that they know supports them as they pursue a degree in higher academia, because that’s definitely something that’s lacking for not only PI students, but for minority students as a whole.”
To help their network expand beyond the University campus, OSA treasurer and School of Medicine graduate student Daniel Salas-Escabillas said they are working to launch a website by the end of the semester.
“We’re hoping to connect with other Pacific Islander organizations in the Midwest,” Salas-Escabillas said. “Once we have our website, hopefully, that will aid in people finding others in their similar career fields … to provide insight, guidance and perspective within the lens of being Pacific Islander.”
According to Mcnally, OSA already has connected with eight Oceanian student members and is also working closely with faculty members from the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies department to create effective programming for OSA members and the larger campus community.
As the OSA leadership team looks towards the winter semester, Mcnally said OSA is working to set up events that will share Oceanian culture with the University through food, music and sociopolitical discussion panels.
“We want to have cultural-based events where we can ideally provide food once the pandemic ends, and it’s safe to do that, but if not, we can engage in music, film and other manifestations of our culture,” Mcnally said. “So essentially, we are trying to provide the U of M community with a better understanding of how Pacific Islanders are present in all of these aspects.”
Castro said OSA is excited to have the opportunity to establish relationships and host events with other ethnic student organizations in a way that celebrates the individual identities of Oceanian students.
“We’re also trying to be pretty proactive in developing coalitions with MESA and different indigenous organizations here on campus, and also with Asian American organizations,” Castro said. “But (we’re) making it clear we want to do events on our terms.”
Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.