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Healani Chang

Healani Chang, PhD

As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, I worked with immigrant populations from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The immigrants were mostly women and children who had just arrived in Hawaii and were eager to learn English and fit into American society. To teach them English, I used experiences from my daily life instead of using textbooks. I shared my Native Hawaiian culture with them, and, in return, they shared their values, culture, and stories with me. My students were eager to communicate with me when they were passionate about what we were discussing, and I learned a lot, too. This kind of exchange between teacher and student was revolutionary to me and completely different from the educational system that I grew up with.
When I was in school, I learned English in a completely different way. As Native Hawaiians, both my parents’ and my generation were forced to learn English and not practice or respect our traditional native language. This devaluing of our language felt like a devaluing of our culture. When I was able to teach English in a new way, it was a very healing experience. My classroom celebrated people’s diversity and culture. We thought of English as a common language that enabled vastly different people to communicate.
Because of this lack of respect for our Native Hawaiian language and culture, I struggled to succeed in the American educational system, which supported competition and individuality over teamwork and community. I wasn’t always an A student. I never had teachers who were Hawaiian, and I had no one in school who understood what kinds of challenges I was facing as a Native Hawaiian student. It was hard to flourish in that environment because Native Hawaiians value Ohana, the family, (immediate, extended, friends, and neighbors) and Aloha, compassion and kindness -in human interaction. Luckily, I had the support of my community and family to get me where I am today.
Ohana and Aloha aren’t just Native Hawaiians beliefs; it’s who we are. Ohana and Aloha have been central to my life, from growing up playing team sports to interacting with people during my school years and my time as a research scientist. Later, these values became part of my career in public health. Ohana and Aloha were taught to me by my parents, who were very supportive of my education, especially because neither of them or anyone else in my family went to the university.
I received a scholarship in basketball and went to the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
Because I was an athlete, I was interested in how people made choices about their health and behavior. This directed me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in human development.
Once I discovered that my strengths were my values of Ohana and Aloha, I knew that I wanted to do work with Hawaii’s multi-ethnic population and stay in the health sciences field, so I pursued a master’s degree in public health education at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
My current research is in developing a quit smoking program for native Hawaiians. There are a number of smoking cessation programs across the nation, but Native Hawaiians continue to smoke at a higher rate than other ethnic groups, and I want to know why. My hypothesis is that it may be that Native Hawaiians need more cultural components in the smoking cessation program. For example, the programs may be more effective if they involve the whole family, or perhaps people would succeed more if they worked in small group sessions instead of following the typical American model of one–on-one counseling.
Being a Native Hawaiian scientist working with a Native Hawaiian population is of tremendous benefit because there are so few Native Hawaiian women in the sciences, in the university system, or on faculties. Native Hawaiian faculty at the university numbers only two percent while our population in the state is twenty percent. We desperately need more Hawaiian role models in the universities and in public health programs like the one I am developing. The Native Hawaiian population needs to have people they can relate to, who understand their culture, their upbringing, and their obstacles and can help them succeed in the American educational system. Being a role model and providing an opportunity to conduct research and learn new skills, to help others move on and create careers for themselves; these are the legacies I would like to leave other Native Hawaiians.
Even though I wasn’t an A student, I made it to where I am today. You can say it was hard work and determination, and it was, but I think my family and friends and the compassion of others helped quite a bit. Ohana and Aloha go a long way in life, for they are virtues rooted within.