Retired professor Wesley says teaching and empowering students by connecting them to their cultures is its own reward


Dr Hiagi Wesley at his retirement party.

Photo by Mark Gatus

The professor, alumnus and former director of BYU-Hawaii, Dr Hiagi Wesley, said that by connecting students to their roots, he helps them empower them. A colleague and professor said that Wesley is also making students around the world feel a part of BYUH ohana.

Alohalani Housman, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language and Performing Arts, said: “Dr. Hiagi Wesley has been at the heart of the Pacific Island Studies program at BYUH. Her Polynesian spirit, welcoming voice and knowledge of the culture made it easy for students to feel at home, even if they are miles from home.

She explained that Wesley has served his students by being a great example of a teacher, mentor, and role model.

Wesley, an associate professor in the Faculty of Culture, Languages ​​and the Performing Arts, reflected on his academic journey at BYUHii from 1969 as a student, to become an integral part of the Islands Studies program. of the Pacific as teacher and principal. Originally from Rotuma Island, he attended BYUH and eventually returned to teach in the education department in 2006. In 2009, he became director of the Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies.

He said, “This is where I always wanted to be because of the student body, and I realized my dream of teaching here and discovering the spirit of aloha. ”

Wesley said BYUH will always hold a special place in his heart as this is where his educational journey began and where he was also able to dance at the Polynesian Cultural Center night show.

He shared that he thinks Hawaii is a very special place. “The aloha experience … has to do with the temple and spiritual learning, [along with] temporal and academic learning.

He said that when people develop and grow socially and culturally in the place where they live and work, they begin to take care of each other.

As he nears retirement at the end of the spring semester, he said he had mixed feelings because of his love for teaching at the University. When he left the education department, he said he was the only full-time faculty member and helped build the program in its early years.

Dr Kali Fermantez, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Culture, Language and Performing Arts, recalled a saying from Rotuman culture that said: “The earth has eyes and teeth and knows the truth. Like many here at BYU-Hawaii, Hiagi has worked many unseen hours and made sacrifices on behalf of the Church, the University, and especially our students. He left a mark on this earth, and the earth knows this truth.

Fermantez said he was amazed at the deep connections Wesley has with the Pacific and thinks he will be missed the most and that they will spend the time laughing, eating and debating together. He continued, “There is no way to replace someone like Dr. Hiagi Wesley, and we won’t, but we will be building on the legacy and foundation that he has established here in the studies. of the Pacific Islands. ”

Wesley, as former director of the Jonathan Napela Center, said, “Teaching students about Pacific Island studies … about the Pacific, people and cultural issues … validates and empowers them. He explained how these students learn to understand and appreciate their cultures through his teaching. He said that many students experience their culture but don’t really think about its meaning. However, by coming to school at university and participating in the curriculum, they become more informed and more connected to the Pacific.

He says he enjoys his job as a teacher and facilitator because he sees and helps students learn. When he teaches, he says connecting with them and their backgrounds helps them feel recognized. He shared this bond with his students, which is why he taught and helped create a positive environment in the classroom.

Wesley continued: “[Students] have challenges in terms of academics, so I try to make them feel they belong. He said that teaching is not enough, rather it is important to teach in a way that the students improve.

Wesley noted that empowerment is very important in preparing your students to return home and learn more about their people and their country. However, not only the people of the Pacific Islands can gain something from the program, he said. Students who are not from the Pacific and take Pacific Island Studies courses, he explained, expand their knowledge and understanding by learning from other perspectives.

He expressed his love for his students and said that because he taught with aloha, his students expressed their gratitude to him. Knowing that he has touched the lives of his students beyond their academics, he explained, is his own reward.

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