The Aloha Connection

Luau Dancers performing together on stage.

You’re fresh out of high school and it’s your first time away from home. You’re in an unfamiliar land thousands of miles away, an area much larger than the tiny place where you grew up. It’s cold and rainy, the food tastes odd, people’s mannerisms, customs and expectations are strange, and you speak an entirely different dialect. You’re feeling alone, afraid and a bit overwhelmed.

Now imagine that you’re met at the airport by your dear Aunty, someone you’ve come to know and trust. When you arrive at your destination, your Uncle is there too, along with lots of others from home, to greet you. They speak your language and understand your culture. It’s still cold and rainy a lot, but the food in the dining room is deliciously familiar—sushi and stir fry, rice served at every meal and, a couple of times a week, favorites like Mochiko Chicken, Chicken Long Rice, macaroni salad and sticky rice. You can take classes in your home’s traditional dances and music. There’s even a big club, Nā Haumāna O Hawai‘i, filled with people just like you. They become your fast friends and mentors and each year you work together to put on a massive party, a lū‘au, that celebrates and honors your heritage, and your culture. 

Pacific University’s many students from Hawai‘i may experience that homesick feeling, but when they get to Oregon, they certainly experience that second scenario—a warm and familiar aloha embrace. For more than a half century, Pacific has nurtured a special relationship with the Hawaiian Islands, culminating with this year’s 50th Golden Anniversary of the Lū‘au put on by the Hawaiian students with lots of kōkua (cooperation) from parents, University staff and supporters.

Understanding the Culture

“Pacific has had students from Hawai‘i going way back,” says Jeff Grundon ’80, Senior Associate Director of Admissions and advisor to the Hawai‘i Club. “Now, 25 percent of our students are from Hawai‘i. It’s the highest percentage of any other university on the mainland. In fact, 65 percent of the optometrists in Hawai‘i graduated from Pacific.”

Despite the sometimes chilly weather, Grundon, who is known among students as “Uncle Jeff,” wears a blue short sleeve shirt with hibiscus flowers on it. His office walls are filled with photos of Island students and their parents and Hawaiian artwork, including a foreboding-looking warrior helmet decorated with feathers in the school’s red and black colors. It was a gift he and other advisors received from grateful Hawai‘i parents.

Student performing a fire dance
Preparations for this year’s 50th anniversary lū'au Manawa Le'a or “Sweetest Times” April 10, began several months ago. Intricate performances like the Samoan Fire Knife Dance (pictured).

“We’re successful because we take care of our students from Hawai‘i—and all of our students for that matter,” says Grundon, who grew up on the island of O‘ahu in the small, rough and tumble community of Wai‘anae. Grundon, who is Caucasian, was one of three white students in his school. It taught him important lessons about the “salad bowl” of mixed ethnicities and cultures that makes Hawai‘i unique. And it gave him deep empathy for being different. “Having grown up there gives me an advantage. Being successful with students from Hawai‘i is all about understanding the culture, and we have a clear understanding of the Hawaiian culture.”

Pacific’s early connection with Hawai‘i goes back to the school’s United Church of Christ (UCC) roots. UCC missionaries created relationships on the Islands. Sending your son or daughter to Pacific was a natural. But the real explosion of Hawai‘i students at Pacific began after Professor Emeritus Fred Scheller  ’43, MA ’54 and Professor A.C. “Hap” Hingston started building the Hawai‘i Club or Nā Haumāna O Hawai‘i in 1959 with 16 Island students. The idea was to celebrate and perpetuate the unique culture of Pacific’s Hawai‘i students. 

Around the same time, the University hosted a Hawaiian-themed party they called a lū‘au. Scheller, who had spent a great deal of time in Hawai‘i while in the Navy, and his Hawai‘i Club members were aghast. “We really didn’t think their lū‘au was very good and we [complained],” recalls Scheller, chuckling at the memory. “Our comments caused repercussions.”

One positive “repercussion” was that the University challenged Scheller and the Hawai‘i Club to put on a better lū’au. They took the challenge and produce what has become one of the largest student-run lū‘aus outside of Hawai‘i. Today, this celebration of Island food, music and dance draws more than 2,000 people from both the mainland and Hawai‘i. 

Nā Haumāna O Hawai‘i quickly caught on, too. By 1962, 60 members represented five of the eight main islands of Hawai’i and the club received its official charter. Now, the club is 300 members strong.  

A World Away 

Island life and culture are as different from mainland American culture as any foreign country. Even the language Island students come with sets them apart. “Uncle” Jeff Grundon says when he first came to Pacific more than 30 years ago, he spoke “pidgin,” a mixture of native Hawaiian, Portuguese, English and Japanese. “I didn’t always speak like this,” he says. “Dr. Fred Scheller…was like a father to me and took me under his wing and challenged me to do better. It was Dr. Scheller who taught me how to speak English properly.” 

Another difference is the sense of collectivism. “Here in the mainland, we have the European tradition of ‘rugged individualism,’” explains Pete Erschen, Assistant Director of Learning Support Services for Students with Disabilities and Multicultural Services, and Hawai‘i Club advisor. “In the Islands, it’s more of a collective culture.”

Traditional Hawaiian Lingo

Island culture also calls for more reserve, less ego and honoring one’s elders. “In Hawai’i, you show respect to your elders, even if there’s only a few years difference,” says Erschen, who has worked closely with Hawai‘i students for the past seven years. “Island students may not be willing to speak up or stick up for themselves. For instance, it would feel foreign or wrong to them to challenge a professor about a grade.”

That Hawaiian reserve sometimes makes selling oneself in job interviews or for a spot in graduate school difficult. “We don’t brag,” says Edna K. Gehring ’70, MSEd ’72, Director of Learning Support Services for Students with Disabilities and Multicultural Services and advisor to the Hawai‘i Club since 1984. Gehring, or “Aunty Edna” as the students call her, is native Hawaiian and knows first hand the challenges of coming to the mainland. To help ease their transition, Gehring’s students can call her cell phone number 24-7. 

As lead advisor for the lū‘au, Gehring is getting ready for another meeting of student chairs and committee heads for this year’s event. She’s just picked up 500 yards of elastic that will be used by parent-seamstresses in Hawai‘i to make pa‘u skirts, short garments made from colorful Hawaiian print cloth for dancers in the lū‘au show. 

It’s well after the hour and none of the students have shown up for the 11:20 a.m. meeting. Gehring isn’t concerned. Being precisely on time isn’t an Island value and she respects the students’ “Hawaiian time.” Students finally straggle in, arranging themselves in a loose semi-circle in the small room. Gehring doesn’t begin the meeting right away. Instead, she greets each student warmly, asks how they’re doing, shares a laugh or two. For Gehring, it’s all about relationships, or ‘ohana (Hawaiian for extended family). 

Students who participated in the Annual Luau
STUDENT POWER | Pacific’s lū'au is one of the largest student run lū'aus outside of the Islands. Above, left to right, are the Lū'au 2010 co-chairs: Ryan Nakagawa ’10, Andrea Chun ’10, Lacey Chong ’11.

“We take care of our Hawai‘i kids,” she says. “We do summer registration in Hawai‘i. We talk to the parents so they know who they’re sending their haumana [students] to and help them feel comfortable. We arrange travel and accommodations and get them discounted rates. We pick them up at the airport in the fall, at Christmas time and send them home in May. We do lots of things that make our students and parents happy.” 

A student, who isn’t part of the meeting, pops her head in unannounced. Instead of being irritated at the interruption, Gehring smiles and says, “Hi, how are you? I need a hug.”

By now, several students have assembled. It’s the first of dozens of meetings that they’ll have this semester before this year’s lū‘au kicks off in April. With more than 35 different committees and 300+ students, 120 or so parents, and at least 50 staff involved, the lū‘au is like organizing a small invasion. 

Lacey Chong ’11, an elementary education major, and one of three student lū‘au chairpersons, says the lū‘au allows her to celebrate her culture. “I identify with my Hawaiian culture and this lets me bring my home to Oregon.” 

Chong is a self-described “mixed plate” of Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino and Caucasian descent. She’s also a talented hula dancer and is teaching the for-credit hula class that will ready many of the dancers for the lū‘au performance. “Dance is my life. It’s something that makes me happy and I love sharing it. It’s also a way for me not to feel homesick.”

Exercise science major Andrea Chun ’10, who hails from O‘ahu, says coming to the mainland was a cultural shock for her. “There’s the whole shoe thing,” she says, giggling. “We take our shoes off at the door, but here, people just walk in. I’m used to it now, but at first it was really hard.”

Chun says the outgoing nature of mainland students was also off-putting. “People here are straightforward. We’re more quiet. That was a big change for me.”

For her, and for many others, Hawai‘i Club eased the transition. “Everyone in Hawai‘i Club is going through the same thing,” Chun says. “They can relate to things going on back home. It really helps.”

Micah Gomes ’12, who’s studying art and anthropology, is a “hooded,” or lū‘au co-chair, one of the important players who wears the coveted hooded jacket (other student workers get T-shirts or sweatshirts). He coordinates the dancers and musicians to put on pre-lū‘au shows that give performers a chance to practice before live audiences. “I got sucked into lū‘au because everybody else I knew was doing it,” he says, smiling shyly. “After I got involved, I wanted to stay because of the sense of community and all the fun I have being with these people.”

The students recently performed five dances and 10 Hawaiian songs at the Red Lion Beach Hotel in Portland for a Northwest Container Company dinner. “It was really nice,” says Micah. “We got paid and they even fed us.”

Kelsey Kaku ’11, from the Big Island, is a mathematics major who says Oregon’s weather has been a major obstacle for her. “The weather is hard for me. All the rain is really depressing. It’s like Hilo where it rains all the time, but here the rain is cold. Being involved in Hawai‘i Club has really helped me adjust to mainland culture.”

The 50th Lū‘au

Large group of performers on stage together.
ROYALTY | King Gary Pacarro ’74, in red robe, stands with Queen Joyce Etrata Wachsmuth ’68 (left) and other members of the Royal Court, traditionally honoring alumni from each of the Islands. Prince and princesses also included Jeff ‘88 and Jana Valera Chun ’89 (center) representing Hawai’i; Cher Higashihara Takemoto ’97 and Blaine Takemoto ’94, Oahu; and Terilyn Antonio Higa ‘95, Maui. The court also included (not pictured), Patrick Higa ’94, Maui; Kaleo Pahukula ’94 and Andrea Wageman Pahukula ’96, Kauai; Kevin Moore ’82 and Allyson Ogi Moore ’83, Molokai; Tom Zyp ’68 and Jan Kiyota Zyp ’68, Ni’ihau; Clark Peters ’65 and Rae Salvador Peters ’70, Lanai; Neil Amina ’86 and Louann Garvin Amina ’84, Kahoolawe.

The Hawai‘i Club’s seminal event is the annual lū‘au, held the second Saturday in April. While the lū‘au was instantly popular 50 years ago, putting it on has never been smooth or simple. Scheller, who coordinated the Club’s first lū‘au and 20 more, said just finding a place to hold the event was a challenge. “We didn’t have any money; we didn’t have a facility; we didn’t have much,” he said, recounting the first one. It was held in the old gymnasium with butcher paper laid on the floor for tables. They organized the parents with a chairperson representing each island and solicited flowers and other Hawaiian ingredients that would make the lū‘au authentic. “The Hawai‘i parents are terrific,” Scheller said. “They figured if their kids were going to put on a lū‘au, it would be a good one, even if we didn’t have any money.”

It was good and the response was tremendous. Students even came from other colleges and universities. It was so successful that the fire marshal told the Hawai‘i Club they couldn’t hold the event in the old gymnasium again. That began several years of moving the lū‘au from local school to local school like a band of nomads, before settling in on Pacific’s Athletic Center on the Forest Grove campus. 

It didn’t matter. The food, the music and dance, was and still is consistently excellent. “Aunty” Edna says the event couldn’t be accomplished without lots of aloha (love and affection) and kōkua (cooperation). “We get 2,000 people at the show; 1,600 at the dinner,” she says. “This takes a lot of love and lots of planning; lots of kōkua with kids, parents and staff all working together.”

The event teaches students leadership and teamwork skills and showcases their multicultural backgrounds. “I’ve worked or been a student on five different college campuses and this is the richest cultural event I’ve ever seen,” says Hawai‘i Club Advisor Pete Erschen. “More than any speaker, class or diversity training, the lū‘au helps many mainland students understand a culture other than their own. If mainland students get involved and really pay attention, they might learn something about what Hawai‘i students experience every day: that being multi-cultural requires real effort; that what is home to one person is foreign to another; and that being from Hawai‘i is so much more than just being from a different state.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit

Thursday, April 1, 2010