One of the first things Jada Quidachay made sure to do when she got to San Francisco State University in 2016 was find a Pacific Islanders club. She and her roommate, a friend from her hometown of San Diego, didn’t know if the campus had one or much else of what their college experience could entail but immediately sought her smaller, overlooked group lumped in with Asian Americans.
“We really didn’t know what we were interested in yet, but we for sure wanted to be surrounded by our culture,” says Quidachay, who identifies as one of Guam’s indigenous Chamorro people. “If I didn’t stay in the club, I would have for sure dropped out or moved back home.”
Quidachay, now the club’s president, ended up arriving at a transformational time for the school to recognize its Pacific Islanders in an academic setting. After decades of advocacy, SF State will begin offering a Critical Pacific Islands and Oceania Studies minor in the fall semester — and Quidachay will be one of the first to graduate with it in 2020. (City College already has a certificate program with the same title.)
The minor is housed within the College of Ethnic Studies, which was born out of a student-led strike at the school that marked its 50th anniversary last year. Despite that call to fame, students and faculty have often had to fight to advance its mission with additional programs, like the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies, to say nothing of adequate funding.
All this came to a head in May 2016, during the semester before Quidachay arrived, when four students led a 10-day hunger strike to demand funding amid a budget shortfall that they said threatened the college’s sustainability. Included in the strikers’ demands was funding for a Pacific Island studies initiative. That same year, the school was federally recognized as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) and received a grant.
By Spring 2017, two classes centered around Pacific Islanders were offered through the college’s Race and Resistance Studies department. (Disclosure: That was this reporter’s minor.) Students involved in the Pacific Islanders Club (Levalasi Loi-On, Rex Halafihi, Amanda Sullivan Lee, and Andrew Van Vai) and faculty from the College of Ethnic Studies (Sarah Wongking Tanuvasa, Kerri Ann Borja, Ursula-Ann Siataga, Grace Yoo, Catriona Rueda Esquibel, and Jason Ferreira) and City College of San Francisco (David Ga’oupu Palaita) were among those named as integral to the proposal’s development in 2018 and eventual approval.
The group celebrates right after the Academic Senate approves a minor for Pacific Islander studies (Photo courtesy Sarah Wongking Tanuvasa)
“This is a historic program that I am so proud to share that I have been able to contribute to,” says Loi-On, now a student coordinator with the university’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Services. “This program means that Pacific Islander students, who continue to be marginalized and underrepresented and have so many hurdles to graduation, have a space in the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU.”
Through it all, what students sought in the future program were front-and-center. An important ask included a tenure-track faculty position, the first with a Pacific Islander focus. Interviews are wrapped up and the new professor will arrive in the fall with the program.
“Every part of the program that has come to fruition the past couple years were because of student activism,” says Wongking Tanuvasa, who teaches SF State’s Pacific Islander health class and also teaches at City College. “We were really strategic about these courses.”
The program has just three classes focused on Pacific Islanders — an introductory course, Wongking Tanuvasa’s health class, and a film class on Oceania representation through an indigenous lens. But the impact is already felt.
Through those classes, Quidachay has finally been able to take the discussions from her dorm room with her roommate into an official forum that expanded her knowledge on issues like climate change. Especially empowering was that one of the professors was a fellow Chamorro woman who opened her eyes on the diverse groups within Oceania, like Samoans, Fijians, and Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians).
“It was very liberating,” Quidachay says. “Especially when you’re talking with other Pacific Islanders, and folks who don’t identify, people ask questions that I wouldn’t even ask myself.”
When Quidachay heard the minor was approved, she got choked up. Like Wongking Tanuvasa and Loi-On, she hopes the program will attract Pacific Islanders to SF State.
Supporters and organizers of the program eventually have their eyes on expanding it to a major program. The San Francisco school board, in the meantime, is looking to begin an educational pipeline.
Commissioner Faauuga Moliga, who became the first elected Pacific Islander in the city in November, is developing an initiative to engage Pacific Islander students, similar to the school district’s African American Achievement and Leadership Initiative. A recruiter is focused on retaining Pacific Islander staff while a Samoan community and parent coordinator is set to do outreach.
“We’re trying to rebuild our identity,” Moliga says. “Through these academic lenses, we’re able to identify who we are and also be able to navigate life with our core values versus the values we learned through assimilation.”