NSF recognizes students for their research into Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander STEM students

With the prestigious honor of “Top 25 Abstract,” a team of UH Hilo and University of Guam students presented their work virtually at an annual regional conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Screenshot of poster and research group. Information on the poster can be found in the content of this story.
The poster presented by students from UH Hilo and the University of Guam at the Louis Stokes Midwest Regional Center for Excellence annual conference, “Empowering Diverse STEM Innovators,” held virtually Oct. 22-24, 2021. The students were awarded the prestigious honor of “Top 25 abstract,” which means they presented their findings orally at the conference in addition to producing a prerecorded poster presentation. (Screenshot by Joe Genz, click image to enlarge)

By Jordan Hemmerly.

A team of student researchers from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and the University of Guam were recently recognized by the National Science Foundation for their assessment of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander undergraduate students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, commonly called the STEM fields.

Working this year on the five-year project are UH Hilo students Junita Jetley, Evangeline Lokebol and Taecia Kukui Akana, and University of Guam students Muturwan Choay, RoCelia Paulino and Eusebio Orot.

The team presented their work virtually at a regional annual conference sponsored in October by the National Science Foundation. They were awarded the prestigious honor of “Top 25 abstract,” which means they presented their findings orally at the conference in addition to producing a prerecorded poster presentation. Jetley and Choay led the oral presentation.

The undertaking aims to better understand Pacific Island student beliefs about being successful in STEM fields by measuring community values, career interest levels, social concepts, senses of responsibility, and the extent of connection to their communities. This year’s research team assessed ethnographic influence on barriers, support systems, and opportunities.

“We recorded stories about the challenges connecting their indigenous Pacific Islander cultures to their studies, but also stories of success with STEM representation of students’ heritage and interests,” write the students in the project’s abstract.

Joe Genz pictured.
Joseph Genz at the Islands of Opportunity Alliance conference held at UH Hilo in 2019. (Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories)

“The results indicate a variety of experiences. Students experienced financial strains, shared a sense of commitment to their island communities that both challenged and empowered their path toward earning their degrees, and engaged in culturally grounded research.”

The students who conducted the research were mentored by UH Hilo Associate Professor of Anthropology Joe Genz and Associate Professor of Education Tobias Irish alongside Monique Storie, who serves as dean of university libraries at the University of Guam.

The study

The student researchers sought feedback from 12 focus groups across 11 college campuses all located in rural island communities in the Pacific region. The study included students enrolled at UH Hilo, American Samoa Community College, College of the Marshall Islands, College of Micronesia, Chaminade University of Honolulu, Guam Community College, Hawaiʻi Pacific University, Northern Marianas College, Palau Community College, University of Guam, and UH Mānoa.

Logo of sailing canoe and words: Islands of Opportunity Alliance, Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority ParticipationThese colleges and universities are part of the Islands of Opportunity Alliance network, a group of higher education institutions whose mission is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students, especially students of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander ancestry, graduating with two- and four-year degrees in STEM disciplines. UH Hilo serves as the lead institution.

Since its inception in 2006, the alliance is supported by the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, a federal program launched by the NSF in 1991 with a mission to encourage and facilitate access to careers in STEM fields for underrepresented populations. The conference where the students presented their work was the Louis Stokes Midwest Regional Center for Excellence annual conference, “Empowering Diverse STEM Innovators,” held virtually Oct. 22-24, 2021. The conference celebrated the 30th anniversary of the LSAMP program.

The student researchers are seeking a deeper understanding of the motivation and beliefs that impact STEM students as they navigate cultural and communication gaps between Western education and indigenous cultures.

The research team recorded stories about the challenges students face when connecting indigenous Pacific Islander cultures to their studies.

“I’m a full-time student and I work full time on the side,” says a student from Chaminade University who was interviewed for the study. “I’m balancing both and it is probably the hardest time I ever had.”

The researchers also recorded stories of success, notably when the student was focusing on a STEM field within their own heritage and interests.

“The [thing] that motivates me is my home,” says a student from the College of Marshall Islands. “That’s why I work on my marine science certificate, because I want to understand and do my part, do what I can for my country.”

The research team found that most Pacific Island students were most interested in marine science or biology degrees, and degrees related to environmental or natural resource management.

“[Coral reefs] are a really important part to our Samoan culture and our island lifestyle,” says a student from American Samoa Community College.

Among their findings, the student researchers discovered STEM students have a potential need for mentorship from people with similar community affiliations.

They also discovered an overarching shared sense of commitment by the students to their island communities. Students who were interviewed shared that challenging and empowering moments during their academic journeys contributed to their awareness of their cultural grounding.

Administrators of the project intend to use the findings to refine STEM learning communities at alliance campuses and share these results with other STEM programs in the Pacific.


By Jordan Hemmerly, who is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo.

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