University of Utah Sets Sights on Building Nation’s Top Pacific Islander Program

Although Utah has the sixth largest population of Pacific Islanders across the 50 states, the state's flagship school does not have a Pacific Islander center or program — but that's about to change.

The University of Utah announced last month that it has begun the search process of hiring two new full-time faculty members in Pacific Islander studies in an effort to build the top Pacific Islander program in the continental United States.

Faculty, staff, and student members of the University of Utah's Pacific Islander community. Courtesy of the University of Utah

“We thought this is something we need,” Adrian Viliami Bell, assistant professor of anthropology and co-director of the initiative, told NBC News. “There’s already a strong community presence here in Utah, and we can build on that by creating a Pacific Islander studies program or center that can represent the history that’s been here.”

Bell said the plan is to build an interdisciplinary program around Pacific Island issues and create a center to coordinate research, education, and retention of Pacific Islander students. The goal, he said, is to gather interest across a wide array of subjects, from anthropology to sociology, social work to education.

The program will also offer scholarships and mentorships to Pacific Islander students, the school said in a statement.

But while some 37,000 Pacific Islanders call the Beehive State home, they and Native Hawaiians make up just one percent of the University of Utah’s undergraduate body, according to the school.

A big reason for the low numbers, Bell said, is that many Pacific Islanders are often the first in their family to go to college.

“And not having that institutional knowledge that comes from their parents or grandparents and how to navigate a university where there’s not very much Pacific Islander representation becomes difficult,” he added.

The school’s Pacific Islander initiative can hopefully reverse that, Bell said.

“If we have a center, then there’s a face that Pacific Islanders can see that they know they can belong here, that they can be successful,” he said.

Other U.S. schools, such as the University of Oregon and the University of Hawaii, already have centers or programs focused on Pacific Island studies.

But Bell said the University of Utah’s will be different.

“We’re hoping that we can be far more interdisciplinary than other campuses and allow that to create a synergy to delve into topics or reach programs that others have not to this point,” he said.

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Utah Pacific Islander groups, including ones focused on art, health and athletics, have been playing an integral role in shaping the direction of the program, Bell said. Incorporating all of their input has also been a challenge, he added.

Bell said he hopes the center will be self-sustaining, receiving money from grants, for instance, instead of relying solely on donations or legislative actions.

“We don’t have a set timeline when to complete this initiative so that we have a program and center built,” he said. “We want to take our time with it so we do it right.”

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