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Masunaga: Low Pacific Islander enrollment in college hurts everyone

Special to Hawaii 24/7 by Colette Masunaga | AAPI Voices

Not all college experiences are created equal. Mine serves a window into the struggles that some communities face in access to higher education.

I was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii and dreamed about attending college on the mainland, particularly, attending one of the University of California campuses. I eventually made my way from the Big Island of Hawaii to the University of California Davis campus in the fall of 2011.

I was eager to experience college life, and expected to meet a few people who were also from Hawaii. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect a flood, but I did expect at least some kind of Pacific Islander presence, since upwards of 40 percent of UC Davis’s student body has been classified in recent years as Asian/Pacific Islander.

What I soon came to realize was that in practical terms, the phrase “Asian Pacific Islander” didn’t include Native Hawaiians, or indigenous people of the Pacific in general. The Hawaii club on campus was basically a hula dance club, with a couple of members from Hawaii and a few more who had relatives from Honolulu.

In an attempt to find and meet more Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, I attended the UC Davis Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Retreat. The retreat was programmed to develop student leaders in the Asian Pacific Islander community by increasing their self-awareness and encouraging personal growth.

I was excited at the opportunity to connect with other UC Davis students — but above all, I hoped that the retreat would actually include Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Unfortunately, I was the closest to a “Pacific Islander” they got that year.

I wish I knew then what I know now. The State of California has the second largest population of NHPIs in the country, with over 300,000 living in the state, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates from 2012.

Indeed, the number of Pacific Islanders in California accounts for a quarter of the national total for the group. Yet in the fall of 2011, when I enrolled as a student at UC Davis, with an undergraduate student population more than 25,000, there were only a handful of NHPIs on campus.

In fact, there were only 83 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students enrolled across the entire 10-campus UC School system.

Unlike Asian Americans, the NHPI community has a lower-than-average rate of admission to University of California schools. \

Indeed, in 2011, the 62 percent admissions rate for Pacific Islanders was lower than the admissions rates for Latinos (66 percent), Native Americans and Alaskan Natives (67 percent), and well below the rates for whites (72 percent), and Asian Americans (78 percent).


Going beyond the University of California, the more general statistics on educational attainment are also sobering. The proportion of NHPIs who have gotten a bachelor’s degree or higher is only 19 percent, well below the national average of 28 percent, and less than half the rate attained by Asian Americans (49 percent).

Indeed, the college attainment picture looks even more dire for Samoans, Tongans, and Micronesian groups.


Similar contrasts between Asian Americans and NHPIs are obvious when one looks at data beyond education.

For example, 17.6 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders had incomes below the poverty line, well above the average poverty rate for Asian Americans (11.7 percent), and also significantly higher than the national average of 14.3 percent.

In terms of nativity, more than eight in 10 NHPIs are U.S. born, while fewer than four in 10 Asian Americans are U.S. born. And NHPIs also tend to be younger than Asian Americans, with median ages of 30.4 and 36.0, respectively.

All of this begs the question: Does the term “Asian Pacific Islander” make sense, given the profound differences between the two groups that make up that phrase? Is an “inclusive” definition that does not include actual Pacific Islander people — as with the retreat I attended — simply obscure the population’s unique needs and issues?

The use of the term “Pacific” in the range of the Asian American discourse has become standard; however, the conflation of these two groups, each of which is pan-ethnic, is flawed, and not to the advantage of Pacific Islanders. More so than not, commonality is assumed when it doesn’t always exist.

There needs to be an understanding that while terms like “Asian Pacific American” or “Asian Pacific Islander” serve as a means to establish shared cause and leverage, the use of these terms must come with the understanding and acknowledgement that these groups are not in fact the same — and that assuming so is even misleading, bring a false sense of representation and participation by the NHPI community in “API” events and movements.

As with the retreat I attended, which misled me into thinking that just because it was called the “Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Retreat,” Pacific Islander students would actually be there.

What remains in my memories of that retreat is how I explained to my peers the current struggles that the Native Hawaiian (or kanaka maoli) community faces — which includes self-determination, self-governance, and language revitalization — and how just because someone is from Hawaii, that doesn’t make them “Hawaiian” in the same way that one views a person from California to be “Californian.”

Disparities between Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and within the ethnic communities that make up each of these groups, are becoming more visible as relevant, disaggregated data becomes more available to community leaders, advocates, government entities, and educational institutions.

It’s time for such disparities to be fully addressed, and with issues like affirmative action increasingly placing a focus on racial and ethnic representation on campus, education is the place where these disparities can and should be highlighted first.

If they are, I’m hopeful that, in the years to come, I will one day return to the UC Davis campus and see a Pacific Islander community, vibrant and strong.

(Colette Masunaga was born and raised in South Kona. She spent her childhood picking coffee on her family’s fourth generation coffee farm and recently graduated from the University of California, Davis. Colette served as a White House intern and is currently the J.A.C.L. Fellow in the Office of Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa in Washington, D.C.)

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