UH Hilo political science major from Papua New Guinea interns at Hawai‘i congressman’s Hilo office

Through the internship in U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele’s Hilo office, Leoshina Kariha hopes to gain experience working within government and apply it to a future position with the government of her homeland Papua New Guinea.

At right is profile photo of Leoshina Kariha. At left is the flag of Papua New Guinea: red and black diagonal design with 5 white stars and a golden bird.
UH Hilo political science major Leoshina Kariha and the flag of her homeland, Papua New Guinea. (Courtesy photo. Flag: Wikipedia)

By Maisie Paulson.

A political science major at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who hails from Papua New Guinea, an independent state with a history of political and civil unrest, is interning at U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele’s Hilo office.

Leoshina Kariha’s father comes from Bougainville, PNG, which experienced a civil war from 1988 to 1998 sparked from tension caused by deforestation to build a copper mine.

“I chose to major in political science because I feel it is a responsibility I owe to my father’s home,” says Kariha. “I want to go and help build a foundation in a now autonomous country.”

The budding political scientist is also earning a minor in geography to learn about land issues. When the civil war happened in PNG, Australia sent in the military as they were in power over Papua New Guinea at the time. Kariha wants to gain an understanding of land policy through studying geography to help protect her country’s indigenous lands from further environmental degradation in mineral extraction activities.

Su- Mi Lee pictured
Su-Mi Lee
Katherine Young pictured
Katherine Young

The junior is interning 40 hours a week at Kahele’s offices for her coursework under the supervision of Katherine Young, an administration of justice professor.

Su-Mi Lee, an associate professor who chairs the UH Hilo Department of Political Science says that as a high-impact practice course, the internship course offers students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in class to the real world.

“It also offers students the opportunity to connect with the community and meet and build relationships with the community leaders,” Lee says.

The internship

Through the internship, Kariha hopes to gain experience working within government to be able to apply it to a future position in her hometown’s government. Her tasks in the office include researching legislation, attending virtual hearings and briefings, fielding constituents’ questions, filing casework, and working in communications such as providing social media proposals, creating monthly newsletters, and managing the congressman’s website.

Kariha travels all the way from Port Moresby, PNG, to attend school at UH Hilo. Her godmother influenced Kariha to come to the school after encouraging her to apply for the competitive, merit-based U.S. South Pacific Scholarship Program (USSP) run by the East West Center. After being accepted into the school and offered the scholarship, she flew out to Hilo to embark on a degree.

She says the internship provides her with hands-on experience, especially in the area of talking with the congressman’s constituents who live on Hawai‘i Island. “I help in addressing people’s issues from around the entire island,” Kariha says.

“We hope to support Hawaiians in agriculture to emphasize the congressman’s presence and support in all aspects of the island’s resources,” she adds.

Kariha has also been able to research two policies through her work at the office. One focus is on the independence movement in the autonomous region of Bougainville and its impact on the rest of the world. Her other focus is on sustainable and regenerative tourism, comparing and contrasting activities in Hawai‘i and Papua New Guinea.

Mountains lush with forests.
Papua New Guinea’s highlands. (Photo via Wikipedia)

She says the internship has been an opportunity to apply the things she’s learning in class to real world scenarios.

“I got so used to learning in class every day and never knew how I could apply this knowledge in real life to help others,” she explains. She says she is grateful for the education she’s gaining in the workplace.

World map with PNG highlighted in green, north of Australia.
Location of Papua New Guinea (in green). (Map via Wikipedia, click to enlarge)

Specifically, she says, she has learned much about the way government works in America. Coming from Papua New Guinea, a country formally under British commonwealth, she can see first-hand the workings of congressional and state levels of government. Kariha also notes the differences in Hawai’i and Papua New Guinea’s political climate as islands. She says Kahele’s staff is welcoming and values her perspective coming from Papua New Guinea.

The goal: Take the experience home

Kariha will be graduating from UH Hilo in the fall of 2024. She looks forward to being able to take her knowledge and experience home.

“As my mother is a teacher, I believe in the power of education to transform lives,” she says. “Improving literacy levels in indigenous communities is essential for locals to understand the power of land and resources they inherit under their traditional titles.”

She explains that the lack of education in Bougainville after the war has resulted in lowered critical thinking, heightened misunderstandings, and places locals in a vulnerable position.

“They need to understand the agreements that they sign with large mineral extraction companies, as this can impact generations to come,” she says.

Upon returning home, she hopes to use her educational experience gained at UH Hilo to find a career where she can take part in political processes  “to drive change.”

By Maisie Paulson (B.A. in Psychology and B.A. in Administration of Justice, 2022).