Students in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s summer immersion program traveled to Hawaii to learn more about Hawaiian culture and how tourism has complicated the lives of native Hawaiians.
Learning directly from those with long familiar histories on the islands, they discovered the tropical vacation destination is much more than ocean beaches and palm trees.
Twelve students were part of the Cultural Preservation through Tourism in Hawaii immersion program to the island of Oahu from June 25 to July 6. Along with UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff, they examined Hawaiian tourism and its effect on the island and its inhabitants.
Students learned about other people’s homeland and needed to show respect for Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources.
“In the past when I’ve traveled to other places I’ve just been a tourist, and I don’t think I’ve been a very good one,” says Alexis Pham, a junior health care administration major from Eagan, Minnesota. “I’ve just done whatever I want and didn’t really think about the impact of my actions.”
Immersion programs and study abroad opportunities are “life-changing experiences” that allow students to learn about other cultures as part of their educations, says Dr. Jeff DeGrave, UW-Eau Claire’s intercultural immersions coordinator.
The Hawaiian immersion program was an example of an experiential learning opportunity that can’t be replicated in a classroom, DeGrave says. He calls it “the transformative part of an immersion program.”
“A lot of folks might think that if you’re going to Hawaii you’re going on vacation. Not true,” DeGrave says. “This is a critical thinking program that takes a critical look at tourism and the impact of folks coming from the mainland U.S., the impact on local culture and perhaps even the disillusion of that culture. On the other hand, there is a lot of money that goes into Hawaii from the mainland. There is that delicate balance.”
During the 11-day immersion, students participated in various activities, including visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center, a cultural tourist attraction to learn how Polynesian culture is often exploited and misrepresented by non-natives. The group of 12 students and two staff leaders also had the opportunity to engage with many local Hawaiian residents to gain a greater understanding of important cultural elements.
For example, students took part in cleaning and harvesting local taro patches, a Hawaiian food staple, as part of a workshop on preserving the preparation and consumption of traditional foods and how the cultivating of these foods relate to land sovereignty.
Prior to the immersion, Pham had only seen images of Hawaii in films and advertisements. She expected Oahu, which includes the state’s largest city of Honolulu, would look “very touristy,” similar to what she had seen on trips to Mexico.
“It’s not as perfect as they make it seem in advertisements,” Pham says. “I actually like that, being able to see the realities of what daily life is here, to see that it’s not perfect.”
Justice Miller, a junior nursing major from La Crosse, had always dreamed of visiting Hawaii, and looking at it through a “critical thinking lens” allowed him to better understand the tropical islands. Miller was surprised by seeing impoverished areas — realities that tourists won’t find in Hawaiian promotional materials.
“Everyone thinks of it as paradise,” Miller says. “Don’t get me wrong, there are lovely areas and it’s been really fun to be here. But there are things that people don’t talk about. It’s not completely paradise.”
Madalyn McCabe, a senior history and political science major from New Berlin, was a student coordinator for the Hawaii immersion. McCabe says she’s learned to be a more conscientious tourist who needs to consider the impact she has on places where she travels.”
“When you travel to a place like this it’s easy to forget that these are people’s homes and we need to protect it and save it so they can enjoy it themselves,” McCabe says.
The Blugolds appreciated that the Domestic Intercultural Immersion Programs provided them with eye-opening experiences at a reasonable cost. Immersions such as the Hawaii program are funded through the Blugold Commitment that covers 90% of the costs for full-time undergraduates.
Pham suggested all Blugolds should look into traveling as part of their educations.
“I never thought that I would be able to go to Hawaii because it’s so expensive,” Pham says. “My advice is to look at options at UW-Eau Claire — immersion programs, study abroad programs, any program you could learn from and take advantage of because it’s a great opportunity.”