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Graduation is something close to sacred for many Pacific Islander communities.
Whether it’s a middle school, high school, or college graduation, you will be sure to see cars packed with cousins, aunties, uncles, parents, and grandparents rolling into the parking lot. Their arms will be full of candy and flower leis as they walk to where the ceremony is being held, struggling to find free hands to carry the money-plastered, cardboard headpieces shaped like a tuiga. Underneath the graduation robes, Pasefika graduates proudly show off their traditional dress ranging from the Samoan puletasi to the Tongan ta’ovala. But the actual graduation ceremony is just the beginning, as families load back into their cars afterwards with their graduates to continue the celebration either at home, a local restaurant, or anywhere big enough to host the entire family and the festivities to ensue.
As we are approaching the end of the school year, I can’t help but think about all of my Pasefika graduates who are struggling to finish school while quarantined at home, or the Pasefika graduates who aren’t even able to get home because of travel restrictions. I can’t help but think of all of the aunties, uncles, parents, and grandparents who have sacrificed everything to put their children through school, only to be stripped of the opportunity to finally see their beautiful Pasefika children walk across the stage after their names are probably mispronounced by the announcer. And I can’t help but think of my own little brother, a current senior in high school, who I won’t be able to ambush with the candy leis that my mom and I would have probably spent all night making.
To all of my Pasefika graduates, I know that you were looking forward to being buried in leis to the point where you would have had trouble breathing. I know that you were looking forward to hearing your cousins scream “Cheehoo!” so loudly that you could barely hear the announcer call out your own name. And I know that you were looking forward to your grandma and aunties pushing you into the center to dance for the entire family at the post-graduation celebration.
But know that even though you might not be getting the graduation that you’ve been dreaming of — and the one that you’ve been working so hard towards — your efforts will not go unrecognized. We see you, and we will continue to celebrate you, because your graduation means so much more than just a culmination of the tests that you have passed and the assignments you’ve completed. It symbolizes the blood, sweat, and tears that your family and ancestors before you sacrificed in order for you to be where you are today. Your graduation is a mark of the strength of Pasefika — that you not only managed to survive but were able to excel in an institution that has been premised on the erasure of your histories. But most of all, it is a beacon of hope for challenging the common misconceptions of our people as “primitive” and for correcting and rewriting our own narratives.
This celebration of you is not to be taken as an absence of critiquing the ways in which the educational system has so often failed us. We cannot forget the ways in which the Western educational system has not considered our ways of knowing as valid knowledge production. We cannot excuse the ways in which it has brainwashed us into thinking that our islands and our people are only created for military use. And we most definitely cannot turn a blind eye to the ways in which the educational system allows for our students to slip through the cracks so easily — with only 18 percent of the Pacific Islander adult population holding a bachelor’s degree.
With that said though, the failures of the educational system do not negate your success and do not mean that you are not to be celebrated. Just because school systems have never served in our best interests does not mean that your participation and completion of school is to be considered a betrayal of your people. Because what other choice were you given? You weren’t given many, and that is why we celebrate you. We celebrate you because your ingenuity in accomplishing the amazing feat of graduation despite only the very few resources allotted to you — an ingenuity you inherited from your ancestors who used nothing but the stars to sail across the Pacific. We celebrate you because of your creativity in reimagining and redefining your own histories through storytelling, something that was passed on from your grandparents and that your schools could never teach you. And we celebrate you purely because of your existence, which in itself is a symbol of resilience and resistance against all of the messaging and images that have tried to instill in you a sense of unworthiness since childhood.
So be proud of yourselves, Pasefika graduates, because you have and continue to accomplish the impossible. And even though we won’t be showing up to your graduations — competing with other families to see who has the loudest “Cheehoo!” and who brought the best leis — know that we still see you, love you, and will continue to celebrate you.
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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