Courtesy of Vanessa Kiefer

In the midst of Asian American and Pacific Islander History Month, the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs Office hosted University of Washington professor Rick Bonus Thursday evening to speak about his book “The Ocean in the School: How Pacific Islander Students Transformed Their University.” Bonus discussed how he witnessed Pacific Islander students at the University of Washington create a community for themselves and integrate their culture into the university through viewing their school as an ocean, a metaphor he continued to touch on throughout the night.

Bonus said Pacific Islander students encounter many challenges when navigating predominantly white universities. He explained though the demographics of universities have changed, the ways they provide education, hire faculty and invoke curriculum have remained largely the same. As a result, Bonus said Pacific Islander students face an overwhelming sense of isolation and devaluation.

“It’s having to navigate such wide and treacherous spaces every day without much family support,” Bonus said. “It’s finding it hard to find accommodating and understanding people, or finding yourself and finding courses that are about your people. Finding students who have similar interests and professors, mentors or advisers who you can talk to freely without having to explain your people’s history.”

As of the fall 2020 semester the University has 14 enrolled undergraduate students who identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and six graduate students.

In spite of finding themselves culturally isolated, Bonus said Pacific Islander students at the University of Washington began to view their school as an ocean, and thus a place where they could form a community.

“One’s idea of the ocean had to be invoked to navigate all these feelings and meanings of being produced as a Pacific Islander on campus,” Bonus said. “In this case, (that means) thinking of the ocean as constitutive of the collective you belong to.” 

Bonus said students engaged in new practices to not only strengthen their community but change the university. He said students first began to view their feelings of invisibility and isolation as structurally produced, and thus resolved to advocate that Pacific Islander culture be integral in the university community.

“They believed that no one can change an entire school, an entire culture, all by themselves,” Bonus said. “So in many Pacifica cultures, living as part of a collective is much more important than living as an individual. Individual achievements are always translated into collective achievements”

Susan Najita, professor of Pacific Islander Studies at the University of Michigan, said Bonus’s book and his work with Pacific Islander students particularly resonated with her and her own experiences with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students at the University of Michigan. She commended the students who developed successful pipelines to transform their institution. 

Najita said while many Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students struggle to be understood and recognized for who they are, there is much to hope for NHPI representation to grow.

“I have had many undergraduate students who take my classes as juniors or seniors say to me that they (are) so happy to have finally found a course that speaks to their own history and experiences of colonization and empire, as well as to their own cultural values,” Najita said. “It saddens me that the University has done so little in my time here for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. There is an opportunity for things to change, and I hope this is the beginning.”

LSA senior Samara Jackson Tobey moderated the event and expressed her gratitude for Bonus and his regard for student activism at the University of Washington.

“I hope the University of Michigan continues to learn from and incorporate oceanic socio spatial ties to seed NHPI values, communities and traditional knowledge systems throughout our institution,” Tobey said. “Surely, our Moana nui will continue to connect us as we work to ensure the visibility of our elders, family and traditions sustain the wellness of our future generations.”

Bonus emphasized that through continuously connecting with their community members at the University of Washington, the Pacific Islander student population was able to value their culture and build a community that would last generations.

“Using the metaphors, beliefs and ideas of the ocean, Pacific Islander students and their allies transformed their school from a place of isolation and anxiety to a place of discovery and excitement,” Bonus said. “From a school that initially devalued them to an ocean of richness and exploration.”
Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at