Monday, April 25, 2005

Members of the Lewis and Clark Hawaii Club and family members perform a Maori war haka at Lewis and Clark College in Portland Ore.

Across the miles

Isle students on the mainland
for college make use of
support groups

Leaving paradise for the first time can be tough. Ari Wong said he was miserable after moving from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., several years ago for college.

"I was very homesick and it was very hard adjusting," said Wong, now a federal law enforcement officer. "I couldn't get used to the food, so I lost a lot of weight. I kept getting sick. I missed my family, Hawaii's climate and the people."

It could have been worse. Wong said one reason he chose George Washington University was because it had a Hawaii club to help ease the transition.

Hawaii clubs are fixtures at more than 50 colleges nationwide, from Boston to Seattle, and on many campuses are the only state-themed clubs. Membership numbers range from less than 20 at schools with few island students to 200 at schools such as the University of Washington and Stanford.

Many clubs receive lists of incoming freshmen from Hawaii from their admissions offices and plan gatherings, such as beach potlucks, before they've arrived on campus.

Matt Tsai, a University of Pennsylvania senior, said support from fellow club members helped him adapt to the climate and way of life.

"We tell the freshmen, 'It's going to be cold, a little bit more high-paced, and people generally are going to be a little more in-your-face,'" Tsai said. "You have to learn to become more East Coast and deal with it."

Even in a more laid-back region such as Oregon, Hawaii clubs can help students share a common culture.

"We all miss the food and the beach," said Jennifer Slaton, a senior at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. "And the sun, because Portland is so rainy."

In frigid climes, upperclassmen at some Hawaii clubs organize shopping expeditions each fall, helping island freshmen accustomed to tank tops and shorts shop for such items as heavy coats, wool sweaters and long underwear.

And at the University of Washington in Seattle, Hawaii upperclassmen make sure freshmen attend at least one Seahawks, Sonics or Mariners game.

"It's the first time they've gone to a pro sports game," said senior Jessica Toyama, president of the 200-member UW Hawaii club.

For almost all Hawaii clubs, the annual spring luau is the premier event of the year.

Generally held in April, the luaus attract hundreds of guests who are treated to authentic hula performances and spreads of traditional Hawaiian food, such as kalua pig and haupia.

Parents and friends in the islands often donate hundreds of dollars in colorful flowers and tropical plants -- ti leaves, red ginger, ferns and birds of paradise -- that are used as centerpieces, strewn on tables or affixed to walls.

Students perform traditional hula. Many clubs also perform dances from other Polynesian cultures, such as hip-shaking Tahitian, the Maori hakka and poi-ball dances, and even Samoan fire-knife dancing.

Lewis and Clark's luau, held earlier this month, was unusual because many performers had no ties to Hawaii. Almost half the club's members are students from the mainland and abroad who are friends with members from Hawaii, said luau organizer Alana Taniguchi, who is from Kailua.

Most clubs have a clear majority of Hawaii students, although they encourage people who aren't from Hawaii to join. About 90 percent of the University of Washington's members hail from Hawaii or have family in the islands, Toyama said.

The clubs also help students from Hawaii clear up any misconceptions classmates might have about the islands.

Tsai, a Honolulu native, said he has been asked questions such as: "How long have you been in the U.S.? Do you use U.S. dollars? Do you live in grass huts?"

And however much fun Hawaii students might have hanging out -- "cruising," in island parlance -- most try to use the clubs as a bridge to the wider mainland culture.

"A lot of parents encourage their kids to stay away from other Hawaii kids, to branch out and meet different folks. I think it's great to have both worlds," Toyama said.

Often, Tsai said, island students are asked how they could leave such an idyllic place. Even though college on the mainland might be cold, sometimes unfriendly and certainly far from family, it offers an education and experience off the "rock."

"I love home, and I want to go home one day," Tsai said. "But I feel like it's a rock and isolated. Things can turn into a repetitive routine. The mainland has so many experiences you just can't get at home."

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