UC Berkeley initiative aims to increase Pacific Islander presence

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The Pacific Islander, or PI, Initiative seeks to create a safe and welcoming environment on campus for students of PI backgrounds.

The initiative, managed by UCLA alumna Angel Halafihi, aims to foster a sense of community among PI students, increase their presence on campus and provide incoming PI students with support and resources to help them thrive at UC Berkeley.

The initiative offers a variety of programming targeted to the community’s specific needs, from course offerings on PI history and identity to a living and learning community for freshmen PI students, according to Eunice Kwon, director of Asian Pacific American Student Development.

In 2017, only 0.2% of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate student population identified as PI, less than any other UC campus, according to Kwon. Of these students, 48% are Pell Grant eligible and 40% are first-generation, and the graduation rates for PI students are lower than those of the campus at large, noted Kwon.

“I couldn’t find people who shared the same interests and struggles as I did coming into Berkeley as a Pacific Islander low-income, first generation student,” said PI Initiative intern Michelle Singh in an email.

Singh found the program through Halafihi, who met with every PI student on campus and asked if they needed support from the initiative.

Junior Maya Ito noted that the program marked the first time she saw support for the PI community at school.

“Back at my community college, me and my friends were the students who were fighting for it,” Ito said.

The initiative came about due to a year of student activism beginning in 2017, according to Kwon.

Kwon said the action included student leaders meeting with the campus vice chancellor for equity and inclusion to demand action from UC Berkeley to address their unique needs.

“Historically, programs and funding for Pacific Islanders were lumped together under the Asian American and Pacific Islander umbrella on this campus,” Kwon said in an email. “This contributed to erasure of Pacific Islander communities because their numbers become obscured within the larger umbrella.”

Ito added that PIs have different issues and stereotypes compared to the rest of the Asian community, such as higher incarceration rates and economic disadvantages.

Ito said the community has “a lot to offer,” and expressed a desire shared with other interns to hold a development conference for PI youth. Additionally, Ito added, the initiative aims to bring youth and community college students to PI programs on campus.

She also stated a wish for more support from UC Berkeley itself for the PI Initiative and recognition of its existence and efforts.

Halafihi “definitely puts in a lot more work than I think she’s getting paid to do,” Ito said. “I would like to see more institutional support for the Pacific Island Initiative.”

With the campus closure due to COVID-19, the PI Initiative has continued hosting events and programs online, added Ito.

Skylar De Paul also contributed to this article.

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr