Poets find their ‘ohana in Hawaiian psychology class

July 3, 2024

Say “aloha” to a Whittier College class like no other.

 Students in the ‘Ohana in the USA class visit the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii. |  Ayesha Shaikh/Whittier College

Since 2018, professors Ayesha Shaikh and Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez have led students in a course that combines sociology, psychology, in-class learning, and travel. Called “‘Ohana in the USA,” the class explores historical and cultural trauma — along with cultural resilience — in native Hawaiians.

This May term, following two weeks of intensive learning, 15 students traveled to O‘ahu to learn about the colonization of Indigenous populations and how Hawaiians heal from the negative repercussions. Students visited sites like the Polynesian Cultural Center, Bishop Museum, ʻIolani Palace, and Kaimana Beach.

“It's a great opportunity for students where they still feel like they're getting to experience a different culture without the need for international travel,” Shaikh said.

While the experience involves visiting a tropical destination, students view the island through a more critical lens than the average tourist thanks to the immersive, firsthand nature of the course. They learn from native Hawaiian cultural experts and cleared boulders out of a stream on ancestral land with the nonprofit ‘Āina Wellness Academy, which utilizes trauma-informed care.

Kinesiology major Maia Cicero said she learned as much about herself as she did about Hawaiian culture. Cicero grew up in a Hispanic household in San Bernardino County, yet she was also exposed to Hawaiian culture from hula classes she took.

The most memorable experience for Cicero was bonding with Hawaiian social worker Tammy Martin.

Jalil Hoy, Bree Brasher, and Maia Cicero move boulders out of a stream on ancestral land in Hawaii. |  Ayesha Shaikh/Whittier College“She really helped my understanding about the native Hawaiian culture, and she helped me take the wool off my eyes,” Cicero said, adding that she recommends the powerful and emotional class to fellow Poets. “You go there and it brings things up to the surface that have been buried down deep inside of you that you forgot you had.”

Bella Contreras-Giardiello ’24, who graduated in the spring, made her own major of developmental and cultural psychology through the Whittier Scholars Program. It was her second time traveling with Shaikh, having gone to New Zealand last year. Shaikh will launch another class that travels to New Zealand to learn about the Māori people in 2025.

“You have to work to heal yourself and your own community, your own family, before helping others,” Contreras-Giardiello said. “And for me, being in psychology, that was a valuable thing to learn. I’m going to take what I learned in the class into my career and for the rest of my life.”

Visit GoAbroad.whittier.domains to learn more about the College’s various travel programs and to apply.

Have a good story idea? Share it with us.