Pacific Islanders say WSU should have talked to them before planning Samoa trip

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Following the announcement that WSU administrators are traveling to Samoa to learn about the needs of Pacific Islander students, some are questioning why no one sought their input first.

Roanna Zackhras, a junior from the Marshall Islands who is involved in both the Pacific Islanders Club and Mitamitaga O Samoa, argued that if the university wants to understand what the Pacific Islander community at WSU wants, they should start by talking to those people.

“I just feel really betrayed,” she said, “because they could’ve gotten our perspectives, but they are totally disregarding what we actually need on campus.”

President Kirk Schulz, Vice President of Student Affairs Mary Jo Gonzales, Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins and Jack Thompson, a former WSU football player from Samoa, will visit Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. They will stay on the island for five days beginning Aug. 23.

Gonzales has said the trip is part of an effort to attend better to student populations the university has historically neglected, like Pacific Islanders. However, Zackhras said by going to Samoa rather than reaching out to WSU students, they are doing the opposite.

“I feel like just having this trip is neglecting our community,” she said.

Phil Weiler, vice president of marketing and communication, said this is an honest criticism, and that there is value in asking students from different populations about their experience at WSU and how to improve it.

“We take that to heart,” he said. “I think we probably could’ve done a better job of having conversations with students here on campus, and we’ll certainly take advantage of their interest.”

However, he said, there is a difference between having conversations with current students, and meeting in person with Samoan community members and leaders. He said these people can be important influences on students considering attending WSU, and maintaining a good relationship with Pacific Islanders therefore increases the cultural richness of the university.

Phillip Sinapati, multicultural coordinator for Student Involvement, adviser for the Asian Pacific American Student Coalition and Samoan native, said he was also surprised to hear about the trip. He found out from the media, rather than from the university.

“We were kinda like, ‘Woah, what’s happening,’” he said, “You have administrators visiting your backyard and you don’t even know about it.”

Sinapati said he believes the administration is trying to promote diversity, but that traveling to Samoa isn’t the only way. Though seeing the culture firsthand will give them a better picture of Samoan values and beliefs, Sinapati said, they could have learned a lot by talking to students.

“It starts with just meeting them at the most basic level,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be anything formal or drawn out, big money spent. It could be as simple as coffee and donuts.”

Manu Thomas, a landscape architecture major and Samoan native, agreed that there were simpler options. He said he hopes the administrators are sincere in their concern, and that they will actually help to improve the lives of Pacific Islander students, but he added that intentionally visiting with students would be just as beneficial.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for them to spend thousands to go to Samoa,” he said, “when there are people here who spent their whole lives there.”

Weiler said the university will not use any tuition money to finance the trip. The money will come from discretionary donated funds, which are essentially reserved for whatever purpose the president sees as being in the interest of WSU.

They have not yet finalized the budget for the trip, Weiler said, and don’t expect to know the total cost until after it is over. He said it is considered a work trip, and will be the first in a series aimed at becoming more inclusive to all student populations.

Zackhras said it also seems they are generalizing based on what happened to the four student football players from Samoa who were arrested in three separate events in the fall for assault and robbery. Particularly with Thompson attending, she said it feels likes an attempt to strengthen relationships with future Samoan athletes.

Weiler said the events of last fall may have influenced the timing of this trip, in relation to other trips they plan to take in the future, but that it is not based on a desire to ensure they continue recruiting students from Samoa.

Sinapati said he found it strange the administration did not come to him to learn more about Samoa, where he lived until coming to WSU for college. He has since met with Gonzales and given her recommendations for the trip.

He also said he is in personal contact with six of the approximately 10-12 WSU alumni in Samoa, and none of them had heard anything about the trip until they read it in news reports. Gonzales has said they plan to meet with alumni during the trip.

Overall, he said they could derive a more accurate depiction of Samoa from talking to the people who know it best, an accessible resource in Pullman.

“I think,” he said, “the administration could do a better job of putting their ear to the ground.”