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Hawaiian college student finds acceptance and comfort in Native American student groups at Syracuse University

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Provided photo: Aysha-Lynn Ke'alohilani WaiLin Estrella
Aysha-Lynn Ke'alohilani WaiLin Estrella (2nd from Left) came all the way from Hawaii to Syracuse University. Her indigenous island culture has similarities and differences with other indigenous people on campus and in the US.

Too often, non-native people are guilty of overlooking the nuances between indigenous peoples. Life as an indigenous person can look, sound and feel very different depending on where one is from. For instance, native Hawaiians have a culture and history that is quite separate from indigenous people on the continental United States. That said, there are also many common values and expectations of respect that span across various communities.

From Hawaii to Syracuse

Even before leaving home, Syracuse University student Aysha-Lynn Ke'alohilani WaiLin Estrella knew she wouldn’t meet a lot of other native Hawaiians in Central New York. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders only make up a tenth of one percent of the student body at Syracuse University. Estrella’s parents had never heard of Syracuse and discouraged her from going so far away for college. Many of her friends don’t ever leave the island, let alone travel to the east coast. As such, Estrella had to complete her application and file for financial aid on her own. When she arrived at Syracuse in the fall of 2020, her first week was spent quarantined in a hotel due to COVID restrictions, missing student orientation and informational sessions.

As Estrella worked through the difficult logistics, she also began to face obstacles related to cultural differences. She felt a level of passive aggressive behavior and insincerity from her interactions with white peers at the university, something she wasn’t used to back home. Syracuse University is considered a PWI, a predominantly white institution, where the student population is at least 50% white. Aysha found that white students were more concerned with stereotypical assumptions about Hawaii than the true experience of a native Hawaiian. Estrella, whose mother is Chinese-Hawaiian, rushed Kappa Phi Lambda, an Asian-interest fraternity on campus. But for those without that cultural connection, she found surprising reactions, such as on male student’s perspective.

“He was an ROTC kid, in the army," Estrella recalls, "and he goes, ‘Don’t you guys hate Japanese people?’ I couldn’t comprehend it because, first of all, I’m also Japanese. He thought because of Pearl Harbor, I would hate Japanese people, not understanding that most of us are Japanese.”

Native Groups from Different Places

Although she left Kappa Phi Lambda due to time constrictions, Estrella found the sense of community in that group that she was yearning for. She’d been hesitant to join Native American groups on campus because they were largely centered around continental indigenous groups, and she wasn’t sure how she’d fit in. However, almost two years into her time at Syracuse, she was persuaded by another indigenous student working at Dunkin’ Donuts to give the native students group a try. After a few events, Estrella quickly realized that despite the differences between Hawaiian natives and continental natives, there are many commonalities as well: expectations of treating each other kindly, reverence of the land, respect of elders, etc.

“The University targets [continental Native Americans] more because they understand more that you’re Native American and they know what that means. I would get emails, but I never wanted to step on anyone’s toes, because it was your holidays, or your drum circles…, ” said Estrella.

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Provided photo
Aysha-Lynn Ke'alohilani WaiLin Estrella is in her junior year studying Health and Exercise Science in SU's Falk College and is involved in the Native Student Program.

It is telling that Estrella had to stumble upon this community via a chance encounter in a coffee shop. Sure, Aysha had her own apprehension about being different from the other native students that kept her from diving headfirst into the on-campus native events and activities. Perhaps some of the orientations she missed while in quarantine would’ve eased her concerns and helped her get involved earlier. But she also wonders if Syracuse University could help crate a more equitable experience for native students and groups.

“We’re erased, we’re used for [Syracuse University’s] demographics but we’re not anything more than just a statistic,” argues Estrella.

Estrella herself comments on how the Native American house and Latino fraternities are tucked away relative to those on fraternity row. Giving legitimate exposure, such as premium real estate to native groups and events, might have helped Estrella connect with other indigenous students earlier.

On Episode 7 of “The Land You’re On” podcast, you can hear more about the unique history and traditions of Native Hawaiians, what life is like for a Native Hawaiian at Syracuse University, and how inclusive native organizations on campus help make a difference. The episode follows an interview with Aysha-Lynn Ke'alohilani WaiLin Estrella and Syracuse University Student Tehosterihens Deer, a member of the Mohawk Nation. The two discuss how they’ve kept in touch with their cultural heritage at a predominantly white institution, and how the university can make native students feel more welcome and comfortable.

The Land You’re On is presented by Access Audio, and the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. The podcast is a limited edition, twelve-part series that will air on WAER’s website and all major streaming platforms. The series continues to reflect on the complicated history of our land, while also celebrating Haudenosaunee culture and traditions.

Cal Dougherty is a Newhouse School graduate student working with WAER on podcast and web content.