Experiencing Hawaii the Ohana Way
No traditional map of the United States can accurately illustrate the geographic isolation of Hawaii. According to the National Park Service, the Hawaiian archipelago is the most remote island group on Earth, roughly 2,400 miles from California, its closest continental landmass, located about the same distance as Los Angeles is from New York City.
For Susquehanna head volleyball coach Kuuipo Tom, Hawaii and its culture are psychologically distant in the minds of most, recognizable only through common stereotypes, while its history and meaning elude deeper understanding.
"For many, Hawaii is just a nice place to go on vacation," Tom says. "They forget that we are a race of people, and they don't really have any idea how we became part of the United States, that not a single Hawaiian had a vote in that decision. There are so many things that we take for granted that we don't even think of as culture."
Tom was born in Pennsylvania in 1959, the year of Hawaii's entry into official U.S. statehood. Although he grew up nearly 5,000 miles away from the islands, he felt a strong connection to them because of his father's efforts to teach history and cultural traditions to him and his older brother Jesse (Kuana) Tom, who also works in Susquehanna's athletics department. His father's education did not extend, however, to formal instruction in the Hawaiian language, which was outlawed for education in Hawaii in 1893 and remained unspoken by many in his father's generation.
To educate students about the richness of the overlooked Hawaiian culture and to help them shed biases in their worldviews, Tom and his wife, Associate Professor of Chemistry Lou Ann Tom, started the GO Hawaii program in 2012. The two-week GO Short program gives 12 students the opportunity to learn about the land and its history through excursions to three islands: Oahu, the Big Island of Hawaii and Kauai.
On Oahu, students visit the 'Iolani Palace of past Hawaiian monarchs and learn about conservation while snorkeling in protected coral reefs. The Big Island offers an educational tour through Volcanoes National Park, and rural Kauai provides a window into the origins of traditions like the luau and the hula dance.
Though the locale is beautiful, the program is not a sightseeing vacation. The trip is physically exhausting, with miles of walking, hiking and swimming in the sun. It also challenges students, who may not know each other very well, to work together toward a common goal and treat each other as family.
"The intimacy and sense of family, ‘ohana' in Hawaiian, is a huge part of the culture and the program," Tom stressed. "There's not a moment when we're not with each other."