Pacific Islander students make up less than 1 percent of the 2022 class at USC. For those few students, finding people of similar backgrounds on campus can be difficult.
It was not until Fall 2016 that a student organization specifically for Pacific Islander students was formed. The Pacific Islander Student Association serves anyone who identifies as Polynesian, Micronesian or Melanesian—that includes Samoans, Native Hawaiians and Guamanians/Chamorros.
Ashley Helenihi, a sophomore studying sociology, is the president of the group. She identifies her ethnicity as Japanese and Native Hawaiian.
"The 'model minority' myth that is prominent in Asian American spaces and narratives doesn't necessarily apply to Pacific Islanders," Helenihi said.
The "model minority" myth is the idea that Asian Americans are one of the most well-educated and wealthy minorities in the United States but it neglects the struggles that Pacific Islanders face under the umbrella term of Asian Pacific Islander. About 51 percent of Asian Americans over 25 have bachelor's degrees according to a 2017 PEW study. Research done by Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, an advocacy group, shows that only about 18 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders have a bachelor's degree.
Identity can be complicated. While Asians and Pacific Islanders are both minorities and they are often combined into one group, they cannot always be considered comparable or interchangeable.
"Hawaii Club is not necessarily serving native Hawaiians because it is a lot of Asians from Hawaii who kind of pipeline to USC. So even though I'm able to share my culture with this group of people, I don't share the same kind of ancestry," Helenihi said.
Helenihi said her organization gives Pacific Islander students a space separate from Asian Pacific American groups.
Asian Pacific American Student Services, a university-led initiative, holds a leadership development program for Asian Pacific Islander students called CIRCLE, and used to have a program specifically for Pacific Islander students called PULE: Promoting Unity, Liberation and Education. According to the 2014-2015 CIRCLE Dashboard, there were less than five participants that identified as Pacific Islander.
"When I first arrived to USC, I went to APASS looking for PI resources and they gave me a flyer for PULE but there was no contact info or anything. I heard that the person who started it didn't have a successor or anything so the club just died out," Helenihi said.
Annenberg Media reached out to APASS for confirmation regarding if PULE is still active, but did not receive comment in time for publication.
Jonathan Wang, the director of APASS, said in an email statement, "APASS is currently directing funding towards our Pacific Islander Student Association to support their efforts to build a stronger NHPI community at USC."
Wang also said that the organization has specific outreach plans for Pacific Islander students. "We begin the year sending targeted communications to all students identified as NHPI [Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander] or South Asian," he said.
As for addressing Asian American and Pacific Islander issues at the same time, Wang said it is possible to create a space where everyone feels represented. "Since CIRCLE spans the multiple ethnic groups within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, we can begin to build bridges on the shared histories we hold, while trying to honor each individual ethnic group," Wang said. CIRCLE participants learn about American imperialism in Pacific Islander history.
The student-led Asian Pacific American Student Assembly boasts 27 member organizations, ranging from professional groups such as USC Asian Pacific Cinema Association to Haneulsori, a traditional Korean drumming club.
During fall welcome week, APASA hosts a kickoff concert with performances from different cultural groups. Incoming students can learn about signature APASA events and join member organizations.
Isaac Hoyohoy, a senior studying applied math, is one of the social chairs for Troy Philippines, one of the APASA organizations. APASA events gave new students exposure to their club. "Getting those connections, hearing testimonies from other people and just that early exposure like that — that definitely helped a lot of people."
Troy Philippines has more than 80 active members who participate in events such as their annual culture show. The club is open to anyone, regardless of ethnic background.
Hoyohoy, who is Samoan and Filipino, grew up in Hawaii.
"I'm proud to come from these very strong cultures. Before coming to USC, I heavily identified as Pacific Islander because growing up that's all I was exposed to, but after coming here and becoming a member of USC Troy Philippines, I've learned more about my Filipino heritage and the culture I come from, and now I proudly identify as both a Pacific Islander and Filipino," he said.
This semester, the Pacific Islander Student Association also became a member organization of APASA. Helenihi says there are about 10 members who consistently come to PISA meetings, but noted that the majority of Pacific Islander students are student-athletes or graduate students who may have schedule conflicts. There were 42 undergraduate Pacific Islander students enrolled in Fall 2016, according to the USC Office of Institutional Research.
"We appreciate APASA and being under them technically but also we're there to hold our own, they've told us we're technically the one Pacific Islander organization out of the now 27 that they have," Helenihi said.
Outreach extends further than just students. Administrative change is the next step in welcoming Pacific Islanders at USC, Helenihi said.
"It's one thing to ask a bunch of Asian faculty, white faculty, black faculty to create a space for PIs but it would be even better to have PI faculty trying to create a space for PIs," Helenihi said. "I think it starts with having that presence in like the upper part of administration from the university and then it kind of trickles down to the student population."