Working for a “Culture Not Lost in Time”
A Native Hawaiian Benefits from UC San Diego’s
New tribal membership scholarships for Graduate Students
Paul K. Mueller | February 2, 2009
UC San Diego graduate student Damien Cie, pursuing a joint degree at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Rady School of Management, is taking advantage of an opportunity only recently made available to him and other Native Americans – the new tribal membership scholarships advanced by the university’s Office of Graduate Studies.
"I guess my hard work paid off, because a year later I not only became a recipient of a National Science Foundation grant, but also was accepted into the SIO doctoral program."
The program is focused on Native Americans, Eskimos, Aleuts, Native Hawaiians and others who belong to a government-recognized tribe of native peoples — many of whom are traditionally under-represented in college and graduate-school admissions.
“With 17 tribes in San Diego County,” says April Bjornsen of the Office of Graduate Studies, “as well as our proximity to the Pacific Island cultures, UC San Diego has a real obligation to educate tribal members. The path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals, and we believe that the new initiative achieves that purpose.”
Cie, one of the first graduate students to benefit from the initiative, hopes that by describing his experience with the program, he can encourage other Native Hawaiians and Native Americans to explore the available opportunities under the program. He talks about his experience in the following interview.
Where and how did you grow up? How did you decide to attend UC San Diego?
I grew up in Keanae Maui, a small fishing village in East Maui with a population of about 500 people. I frequently traveled to Southern California to visit family and attend public school.
Damien Cie, a Native Hawaiian, is one of the first beneficiaries of a new Tribal Membership Initiative for graduate students at UC San Diego.
It was not until the seventh grade that I remained in Southern California to finish school. Thereafter, I attended various community colleges, eventually receiving my A.S. degree and becoming a seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry. I soon realized that I wanted to further my education and, so, I applied to UC Davis, where I majored in environmental science. However, due to some financial difficulties at the time, I felt it in my best interest to take some time off from school and join the U.S. Army. After serving four years and participating in conflicts, I was honorably discharged and decided to return to school. I finished my B.S. and M.S. at San Diego State University, where my major was marine ecology. I found myself enjoying graduate school, including research, field work, and teaching. I decided then to pursue my Ph.D.
Coming from an ecology background, I knew that Scripps Institution of Oceanography was well recognized for its marine research, and, so, I knew it was a place I wanted to be. Although I was not initially accepted, I remained optimistic and undeterred. I volunteered my time and skills in a couple of research labs at SIO, learning and building a good work ethic as well as forming useful networks and connections.
I guess my hard work paid off, because a year later I not only became a recipient of a National Science Foundation grant, but also was accepted into the SIO doctoral program.
What unique perspective do you bring,
as a Native American, to the university community?
It amazes me that a lot of people — including Americans — don’t know that Hawaii was and still is inhabited by native people like my ancestors. Most people think of Hawaiians as simply locals who live there — which is true, but native Hawaiians indigenous to the islands have a lengthy and distinct history there. We are rooted deep in culture and traditions, dances and songs, food and pottery, and so on. I mean, how many people know that Hawaii was actually once ruled by a monarchy system of kings and queens?
"My ethnicity may be unique, but my struggles in life and school are not, and so many students can relate to that."
While Hawaii is blessed with beautiful beaches, stretches of palm trees and incredible tropic weather, we have so much more to offer. I think that if I can show another side of Hawaii — one rich in ancient practices and art — I would be helping people gain a better understanding of our islands (and our people) and at the same time paying homage to my heritage.
By the same token, post-secondary education is not a top priority for most native Hawaiians, some of whom have not even considered college because we simply didn’t have that kind of exposure.
I hope my story can help make a difference and inspire young Hawaiians as well as students of under-represented, diverse ethnic backgrounds to give higher education a chance. That may be why I enjoy partaking in career day workshops and seminars for diversity. My ethnicity may be unique, but my struggles in life and school are not, and so many students can relate to that. In this regard, I bring a cultural, ethnic, personal perspective to the UC San Diego community.
As a result of this program, in what ways can
you contribute to your Native American cultures?
After completing my Ph.D. and M.B.A. degrees, I would like to obtain a government position in order to help 1) establish Hawaiians as Native Americans in all branches of the government; 2) improve living conditions for many subsistence fishing families by developing environmentally friendly aquaculture; 3) restore historical sites in Hawaii to protect and preserve the culture and history of the Hawaiian people; and 4) disseminate the Hawaiian culture and knowledge to all ethnic groups.
Describe the work you do as a graduate student. Where do you hope it takes you?
Cie’s research, which focuses on the aquaculture of Hawaii and the possibility of ecological restoration, frequently involves underwater work.
My research focuses on the establishment and use of historical aquaculture in Hawaii. I am trying to elucidate the origins of aquaculture found throughout Polynesia, in particular Hawaii, and determine their environmental effects.
In addition, I am also trying to determine if restoration is economically and environmentally feasible. I am hoping that my research will help establish more environmentally friendly aquaculture that can be implemented globally.
I also hope that, with a business background, I can make a difference in governmental decisions regarding farming practices used in the United States, possibly reducing the pressure imposed on wild fish populations.
How did you learn about the new program? How has the grant process worked for you?
After participating as a graduate presenter at the 2008 Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference in Salt Lake City, I spoke to Chris Murphy from the Office of Graduate Studies at UC San Diego. He mentioned the program and believed it would fit me perfectly. After reviewing the initiative online, I felt it was a great opportunity for me and applied.
Since I am a joint student between the Scripps Institution and the Rady School, I had some issues with my tuition and registration fees. After speaking to the reps at Graduate Studies, they were able to resolve my situation with few or no issues — and to them I say, thank you!
For others who might not know about
the new program, what would you say to explain why it’s important?
"I believe we Native Americans have the
ability to make a huge mark on the global stage."
The program is important on two levels. First, lack of funding is a huge deterrent for students contemplating graduate studies. In fact, it’s the No. 1 issue that comes up again and again when I talk to youths at recruiting conferences, career seminars, etc. This initiative alleviates some of those worries and allows you to focus more on your studies, improving your chance of success. To not take advantage of the funding supported by the program is, in essence, throwing your education away.
Second, as small a demographic as we may be, I believe we Native Americans have the ability to make a huge mark on the global stage. The initiative provides an excellent opportunity to expand our talents, skills and minds. Hopefully, we can make great contributions in the future.
What other steps could UC San Diego and other
universities take to improve access to education for Native Americans?
The initiative itself is definitely a great start, so continuing to spread the word (at conferences such as SACNAS, for example) is imperative. Also, universities should push for additional funding from the federal government and the state, although in these times that may be a bit more difficult.
It also might be helpful to organize a group of Native American graduate students to speak at conferences and forums regarding Native American funding opportunities and the types of research work being undertaken.
Do you plan to help educate your
communities about this and other opportunities?
Definitely. I have already been involved with minority outreach for the past six years, giving talks and presentations at various conferences and forums nationwide. I also involve Native Hawaiians in my own scientific research, in hopes that I can persuade them to someday pursue higher degrees, especially in the sciences.
What’s your vision for your Native American community over the next 25
years? Are you optimistic about their futures? What causes you the most concern?
Pursuing a joint degree from Scripps Institution and the Rady School, Cie advocates the Tribal Membership Initiative at minority-outreach events, forums and conferences.
I hope that in the next 25 years, Native Hawaiians will have the same rights as all Native Americans with regards to education and healthcare. Certainly, this will affect the numbers of Native Hawaiians applying to graduate and professional schools, as well as our representation in the post-secondary workforce.
While much of our knowledge of Hawaiian culture and ancestry comes from our elders, it’s up to the younger generation to carry that on. Our past should not be forgotten. That’s why I think it is necessary to teach and involve the younger generations -- so that our culture is not lost in time. On the other hand, progress is just as important for a vital future for our community. Having said that, this initiative is one step closer in that direction and that gives me optimism.