Student-led video production project at UH Hilo dispels stereotypes of Pacific Islanders

Pacific Students Media was founded by UH Hilo students to combat misinformation in the general media about Pacific Islanders in Hawai‘i.

By Kara Nelson.

Axel Defngin in plaid short.
Axel Defngin

Serving to combat discrimination against Pacific Islanders and stereotypes about them at schools and in the community, the Pacific Students Media project at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo uses social media to promote positive messages and stories to showcase the rich cultural heritage and integrity of Pacific Islander peoples. After its first year, the project has gone from its first steps to its current expansion and accomplishments.

Pacific Students Media was founded in spring 2014 with the mission of combating misinformation and stereotypes about Pacific Islanders in Hawai‘i through real stories produced via video, print, and web. The group’s motto is, “Uniting Our Voices, Sharing Our Stories.” The students interview people and film events as they see them, then post the videos on their YouTube channel to showcase positive contributions, challenges, and successes of Pacific Islanders.

  • Meet the team at Pacific Islander Media.

“It’s basically just telling stories and getting others inspired,” says UH Hilo student Axel Defngin, who serves as project manager and video producer.

Defngin was born and raised of Yapese parents in Hilo, but financial struggles caused his family to move back to Yap in 2008. He went on to graduate Valedictorian from Yap Seventh-day Adventist School in 2013, and after one semester at Chaminade University in fall 2013, he transferred to UH Hilo.

The aims of the media group are to banish discrimination and showcase the culture in order “to show people that we’re a group of people that came here for education and just the better welfare of our family and communities back on the islands and here.”

Defngin says media often portray Pacific Islanders negatively, particularly the Micronesian community.  He says Pacific Student Media’s importance is in giving a voice to Pacific Islander students and community members.

The team documents Pacific Islander events island-wide both on- and off-campus. “It’s done a lot of good, I’d say, because our videos on YouTube are viewable by other islanders in the United States and abroad,” Defngin says.

Vidalino Raatior
Vidalino Raatior

Vidalino Raatior, director of UH Hilo’s Pacific Islander Student Center, founded the video project.

“I know how much the media has played into the negative stereotypes of Pacific Islanders and any other migrant community because they often focus on the negative things or the problems,” he says. “So instead of continuing to wait for the media to tell the stories of these students and the community, I decided to start a team of (communication) majors and other folks who are interested in that kind of work, to get them trained.

“The basic idea for this project is that students get to identify, interview, and tell the stories of Pacific Islanders, whether they be students or members of the community who are doing amazing things or who are struggling through life and are trying to make something of themselves,” Raatior explains, noting that the students are “storytellers,” not the mainstream media needing “some airtime that sells.”

Like any group, Pacific Student Media has taken time to get rooted, but its success is evident, especially under Defngin’s leadership. Raatior called Defngin “a Godsend” to UH Hilo, especially with his background between Hilo and Yap.

“He’s been such an amazing leader in this particular project, just his ability to gel the team, ability to manage the different projects and different stories,” Raatior says. “He’s the type of leader I know someday I’m going to look back and say I’ve had the greatest honor of working with him, mentoring him through this process of growth.”

Making videos

Pacific Student Media is continually creating “What’s Our Story?” student videos. Defngin says their YouTube channel has “some really deep stories.”

“I’ve noticed that all of them have a central theme of family,” he says, giving examples of students attending UH Hilo for reasons like supporting their families, for their single moms or their parents, or because they’re the first out of family and siblings to be going to college.

“I guess some stories really stood out to me and surprised me how openly some people would discuss their stories,” he says, such as parents getting divorced. One week they interviewed ten or eleven students, and he and the other members were continually crying during each interview.

Such touching accounts from a collectivistic culture weren’t typical at first, but students have become increasingly more candid. “I think the reason the students are starting to become more and more open is they watch the videos and they get inspired by the students previously, ‘cause islander students are usually closed off to expressing their personal feelings and their stories, especially to video,” Defngin explains.

One of the four founding members of the media group, Defngin originally didn’t know where the project was going, but says, “I wanted to be part of the journey.” He finds that the team’s biggest challenge is the inexperience of the team. After being hired, the four students were trained and certified as video producers by Nā Leo ʻO Hawaiʻi Community Access Television.

The team progressed as each member learned each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Recently, the group has expanded with three new members.

Pacific Student Media is a component of the Highly Engaged Learning Placement (HELP) program established by UH Hilo’s Pacific Islander Student Center and funded by a grant from the Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) Program.

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About the author of this story: Kara Nelson is a senior at UH Hilo double majoring in English and Communication. She is an intern in the Office of the Chancellor and a writer for UH Hilo Stories.