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BYUH volunteer said bringing the PCC to ‘at-promise’ youth taught them to endure challenging situations by understanding their cultures

BYUH student volunteers stand in a semi circle in a classroom with teens at the National Guard Youth Challenge Academy. They are wearing aloha shirts and traditional clothing from the South Pacific Islands.

Longo Huhane is just one of the students who helped bring the Polynesian Cultural Center to the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy cadets, who are referred to as “at-promise” youth as opposed to “at-risk” youth. She said teaching the cadets about culture was impactful because it helped them realize they can draw strength from their roots.

“Our struggles, sacrifices and why we put ourselves in [challenging] situations is not only because of our future but also because of home. It’s always because of home and where we come from,” Huhane shared.

BYU–Hawaii students and PCC employees coordinated with the academy to bring the PCC to the cadets on April 1, 2021. According to its brochure, the academy is a quasi-military school for students who have difficulty completing traditional high school.

Destine Fatu, an instructor at the academy and a BYUH alumna from Waianae, said the cadets normally enjoy family days. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting families became impossible. Instead, she said they instituted an ohana week to allow the cadets to learn about other cultures. Fatu said the BYUH students’ performance was the highlight of ohana week.

The student volunteers taught the cadets about Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand and Fiji via video clips and PowerPoint presentations. According to Fatu, some cadets used this opportunity to connect with their own cultures.

“Many students stated they have never been to [the] PCC or BYUH,” she added. “One of the cadets mentioned, ‘I felt like they were my cousins. I had so much fun.’”

Gaining encouragement

Huhane, a senior interdisciplinary studies major from Tonga, was one of the students who participated in the event. She described her experience as “very fun and inspiring.” She said the whole experience made her feel fortunate. “We could see and feel how these kids looked up to us because of what we shared.”

In the process of encouraging the academy cadets, Huhane said she felt she was the one receiving encouragement to keep pressing forward because she needed it the most. She said she was reminded of her family and her three younger siblings, realizing they help her keep going. “If they look up to me, then who am I to not believe in myself?”

She said they presented to six groups of 15 to 20 “eager” cadets, both boys and girls between 16 and 19 years old. They taught the cadets the names and meanings of the motions in Polynesian dances and invited them to dance.

While some were shy at first, Huhane said, “Our team was so amazing in making them feel comfortable in dancing and they did pretty good.”

She said her favorite part was seeing the cadets actually enjoying doing the dances.“One kid said, ‘When I go home, I will show my family these new dances you guys taught me.’ Another shouted, ‘I love you guys!’” Huhane said after the performance, the cadets said they wanted to visit the PCC and even attend BYUH.

Pursuing dreams

Julia Sio, a junior IT major from Samoa, was credited as the student who organized the whole event. She said she got involved in the academy thanks to Fatu, who is a family friend married to one of Sio’s ward members. She said she saw herself in the cadets because of their similar cultural background.

“We come from the islands where most of our opinions are not being heard or are mostly ignored. Most times we have no choice but to obey our parents or legal guardians’ opinions more than what we feel like doing,” she shared.

The reason the cadets matter to Sio, she said, is she wants to help them follow their own dreams by teaching them about culture and the importance of higher education, and the mini PCC helped her achieve that.

“Some of us come to school because our parents want us to and not because we want to,” Sio explained. “We do a lot of things for the sake of impressing our parents and making them feel proud and happy. It is the most selfless thing we ever do, but also it is very selfish because we are not speaking up and pursuing our own dreams.”

Fatu contacted Sio in March to present different cultures to the cadets in the same manner they present them at the PCC, Sio explained. “She wanted us to ... encourage the students to attend BYU.”

BYUH volunteers teaches young people at the Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy how to perform a Polynesian dance. They are dressing in dark pants and aloha shirts.

Sio said the Youth Challenge Academy has tried to connect with BYUH in the past as a way of encouraging the cadets to pursue a higher education.

“It was hard to organize a group in a small amount of time,” Sio said. “I spent a lot of time pondering and praying.” Relying on a network of friends and roommates, she said she was able to gather enough volunteers in only four or five days to pull it off.

The cadet’s confidence grew as they practiced. “They were able to do it,” she said proudly. “It was fun.”

Despite the stress of the last minute preparation and planning, Sio said she ultimately felt excited before and satisfied after the event.

There are youths out there who need help, she said, and the help they need is the support and encouragement to pursue education and learn. Despite the challenges the academy cadets face in their lives, from broken homes to lack of direction, Sio said forging a meaningful cultural connection has left both BYUH students and the Challenge Academy cadets feeling uplifted.