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Students from the island of Pohnpei share where they come from and challenges of being a student at BYU–Hawaii

Students from the island of Pohnpei.

When Megan Jonathan, a junior majoring in hospitality and tourism management, reveals she is from the island of Pohnpei, she said the usual reaction is questions of where the island is located. To give context she would say its located in Micronesia. According to her, most people do not know where Micronesia is. She says it is like her country is nonexistent.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Pohnpei is an island part of the Federated States of Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean. It is known as the Garden Micronesia due to heavy rainfall and fertile soil. The island is 129 square miles and home to more than 36,000 people.

According to Jonathan, there are four students from Pohnpei currently attending BYUH. Sharing similar feelings with Jonathan, Judie Welter, a freshman studying education from Pohnpei, said, “Most people I talk to have never even heard about Pohnpei before. I usually have to show people on a map. Nobody knows anything about my home and they think that I’m talking about the Pompeii in Italy.”

Kamaua Yamamoto, a freshman majoring in accounting from the Big Island, Hawaii, spent his entire mission on the island of Pohnpei. Similar to Welter, Yamamoto recognized people know little about Micronesia, let alone Pohnpei. 

Life and culture in Pohnpei

“Life on Pohnpei is easy,” according to Jonathan. “People just spend their lives there and are happy to live off the land. You don’t need money to live.

“Our culture defines who we are. Not much is known about it, but we do a lot. We have a lot of dancing and chanting. Also our culture cares a lot about sakau and the sakau ceremony. The sakau cup is on our flag.” Sakau is a drink similar to kava.

Regarding the culture, Yamamoto said, “[Most] people don’t know much about their culture. Kiribati is close to the culture of Pohnpei. The people of Pohnpei have culture, they have a great identity to them.”

Yamamoto shared the humble living conditions he observed while serving in Pohnpei. “[In] my first area mostly everybody lived in huts. If you were a bit richer, you had a basic house made of cement.

“Most houses are made of wood, mangrove [with] leaves as a roof. In many parts of the island people have to collect their own water. They get it from freshwater springs, pumps or rain water. Electricity [is] also scarce.

“Pohnpei is unique. Such loving people. Everyone became my family. The culture is so respectful. Everyone bows for you, they tuck one arm under the arm they shake your hand with, they are so respectful.”

Welter said the lifestyle in Pohnpei is simple. “The people in Pohnpei are very nice and friendly. We treat foreigners very nicely. Most people don’t have jobs. They just live off the land. They farm and grow their own crops and food. It’s very humble and easy living. It’s a real island life.”

Values of education

Jonathan the simple life in Pohnpei causes the people to have different values. She said, “Our parents and older people don’t see education as something that is important.

“They don’t think we need much education because we can just stay on the island and live the simple island life. I agree with them to some extent.”

However, Welter said she thinks obtaining a higher education is important. She said although people are not concerned about getting an education, attending school at BYUH gives her and other Pohnpeian students the opportunity to be exposed to other cultures. They gain an education in a spiritual environment that can be used to help Pohnpeian society.

Yamamoto added, “I think for Micronesian students to come here, it will help them be one step ahead. They can help Pohnpei and the people of their island much more by coming to BYUH. For them to come here gives them so many opportunities to help their people.”

Challenges of attending BYUH

Jonathan shared, “The main challenge I face is sharing opinions. Americans and other cultures here are so free to share what they think and their opinions. In Pohnpeian culture, we are taught not to share opinions and thoughts freely because it’s considered rude. Being here in classes and seeing that has been something I’ve had to adjust to.”

Jonathan said her culture is interdependent and coming to BYUH has been challenging because people live independently here. Despite the change, she said she has enjoyed learning about other cultures and experiencing a new life.

A future Micronesian Club

Welter added, “There isn’t a lot of support here for Micronesian students. People don’t know much about us or who we are so it can be hard to adjust. I think a Micronesian club would be a good idea. I want people to know we exist.”

Sharing his feelings about Pohnpeians, Yamamoto said, “Pohnpei is where my heart is. A Micronesian club is definitely needed. It will help them and other students coming from the region of Micronesia.” A Micronesian club has previously existed and was last active in the Spring 2017 Semester.

Writer: Will Krueger