New pathway program opens STEMM career possibilities for Pacific Islander students

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The inaugural cohort of the Pathway for the Advancement of Pacific Islanders (PAPI). Courtesy photo.

Dr. Pakieli Kaufusi’s research journey stemmed from his upbringing in Tonga, where his parents were farmers. From observing his father’s unique perspectives and solutions on solving problems related to the family farm, Kaufusi took an avid interest in research and pursued his master’s and Ph.D degrees at JABSOM in 1997 and 2005, respectively.

Kaufusi, who currently serves as an Assistant Professor of the JABSOM Department of Tropical Medicine, Microbiology and Pharmacology, aimed to provide long-term solutions for the health disparities affecting his community, as well as to inspire future generations of Pacific Islanders to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). This fervency of reducing the health disparities in the Pacific Islanders was especially evident at the height of COVID-19 pandemic. Kaufusi played an instrumental role in educating Pacific Islander communities about COVID-19 and promoting vaccinations.

It was the fusion of his passions – research and community – that led Kaufusi to develop the Pathways for the Advancement of Pacific Islanders (PAPI). The summer bridge program was launched in early 2023, with the support of the University of Hawaiʻi Provost Strategic Initiative. 

“It’s made me realize that Pacific Islanders represent one of the fastest growing ethnic populations in Hawaiʻi,” Kaufusi said. “Yet they still experience persistent barriers in accessing higher education. So the fundamental issue here with Pacific Islander students is the academic readiness and the educational equality.”

The goal of PAPI, Kaufusi added, is to promote the enrollment, retention and graduation of Pacific Islander students in universities, and eventually to guide them into STEMM-related fields.

Pacific Islander students are known for pursuing non-STEMM careers, such as music and sports, but with the growing health disparities, Kaufusi noted that it’s important to bring these students back to serve their communities. 

 “When I spoke to the participants of this program, I actually highlighted the problems from COVID-19, and then I started talking about other chronic diseases that are high amongst Pacific Islanders,” he said. “That really opened up their eyes that there is a need for their people. That was a motivating factor for most of the participants that really engaged in the health-related pathways, especially in JABSOM.”

High school juniors and seniors from across the Pacific Islands, as well as University of Hawaiʻi Community College students, spent a week learning about the various STEMM initiatives throughout the university, including a tour of JABSOM and the University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center and their respective initiatives.

PAPI program coordinator, Cody Chun, said that students enjoyed the hands-on experiences at JABSOM, such as the SimTiki simulation lab and the Communication Science and Disorders audiology tests. The overall experience of PAPI, especially at JABSOM, opened their eyes to the possibilities of pursuing STEMM as a career path.

“The STEMM-related programs, or even just the healthcare side of things, has had a lot of impact on their thought process as far as what career path they’d like to choose in the future,” said Chun, who holds a graduate degree in Clinical Research from JABSOM’s Tropical Medicine program. “There’s an opportunity to stay in Hawaiʻi and go through the curriculum here, but to also be a part of their community and contribute and impact people’s lives.”

Students had the opportunity to share what they found most interesting about their experience in PAPI during the awards ceremony, which was held on May 26 at the UH Mānoa East-West Center. Many shared similar sentiments about the program paving the way for them to head toward STEMM-related fields. 

Between presentations, the cohort had a chance to incorporate their learning with their culture – a notable characteristic in Pacific Island communities, where their values are deeply rooted in family and cultural practices. They acknowledged their parents in the audience before every presentation, and performed cultural dances to pay homage to their families and island homes.

The PAPI program not only opened the possibility for Pacific Islander students going into STEMM, but also provided a sense of hope for families that their children could pursue such fields and provide the care needed for their islands.

“Raising the awareness for these Pacific Islanders is really helpful, and there was a lot of positive feedback from the parents,” Kaufusi said. “Their interest is there. Every family that I’ve talked to that found out that I’m at JABSOM, they’ve asked me, ‘How can my child get into medical school?’ The participants send out a good word about JABSOM – and they’ve only spent one day there. They were exposed to many different programs, and they are so excited.”

Chun added, “Their culture is engraved into the group decision making [as a family]. So we want to make sure that the student is committed to going to med school or pursuing these programs, and that the family also has an understanding of it. We work toward that goal to remain connected with them along the way.”

Kaufusi and his team plan to extend this program to Pacific Islander students outside of UH Mānoa, and even outside of Hawaiʻi. He credited the numerous UH schools that were involved in this program, such as the College of Engineering and the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work, and the various supporters that made PAPI what it currently is. He also hopes that PAPI creates more Pacific Islander representation in STEMM-related fields, particularly JABSOM.

“We hope to make that possible for them,” Kaufusi said. “This is going to leave a very huge impact on the Pacific Island communities here in Hawaiʻi, and to motivate them to be in the health-related fields, especially the various programs in JABSOM.”

To learn more about PAPI, click here.