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BYU–Hawaii's Pacific Island Students Attend United Nations Conference in NYC

Six students stand with professor Akanoa outside in New York City.
Photo by professor Christina Akanoa

Brigham Young University–Hawaii students network with United Nations delegates and other international organization representatives in New York City, New York, at The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). The 2023 conference theme is "Indigenous Peoples, Human Health, Planetary and Territorial Health, and Climate Change: A Rights-Based Approach."

Since 2013, Christina Akanoa, a political science professor at BYU–Hawaii, has taken groups of students to the big apple on the United Nations (UN) field study. The research trip exposes students first-hand to international affairs on a world stage. Students return with a greater understanding of global challenges faced by indigenous peoples and how they can actively participate in solving issues affecting their home countries. Additionally, students sit and visit with Permanent Missions of the Pacific Island nations and their permanent representatives to the UN.

The concept behind the UN field study started after Akanoa saw other universities, such as the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, participating in such initiatives. "I wanted this so much for our students, and I was over the moon when we got our approval letter to participate," Akanoa stated. Since then, the program has blessed numerous students with internships for various Pacific Small Island States represented at the UN.

Student researchers stand outside the UN Conference building in front of different country flags.
Photo by professor Christina Akanoa

From beginning to end, students were exposed to new environments and experiences. Bailey Williams, a senior from New Zealand, mentioned how he'd never forget the first time they entered the UN headquarters, sharing, "Walking in those doors gave me goosebumps. Being surrounded by thousands of people from different regions of the world, all trying to make an impact in the places where they are from, was inspiring!" He continues by adding how he's motivated to follow in their footsteps by giving back to his country after finishing school.

This year's agenda consisted of UN sessions and meetings with ten Permanent Missions of the Pacific Small Island States. Students' in-person interactions with these delegates are a unique highlight of the overall experience. During an exclusive closer look at the Permanent Missions, Eden Brown, a senior studying political science and exercise sports science, noticed the Permanent Missions representing Pacific Islands had fewer people staffed compared to the larger countries, but handled similar workloads. And although these island nations have individual issues at hand, Brown remarked, "It was uplifting to hear and see how they support each other in attending various meetings, sharing information, and moving forward as a blue Pacific region."

Sia handing over a gift to the Samoan Permanent Mission representative.
Siagnoa Tupai presenting a small token to H.E. Ambassador Filipo Tarakinikini of the Permanent Mission of Fiji to the UN.
Photo by professor Christina Akanoa

While visiting the Samoa Permanent Mission, Siaganoa Tupai, a senior from Samoa, discovered that continual learning is crucial when working in a high-level, high-stakes role. She notes one of her many motivations for participating in the field study was to learn about global issues and how future generations could advocate for change. As a result, she witnessed the passion and ambition of delegates and Pacific Island representatives. Their example inspires her to be a part of the change and work towards resolving issues her country faces.

Benjamin Mitchell, a senior studying political science, describes the trip as "life-changing," sharing, "It was humbling to see some of these representatives of the Pacific Islands living out their dreams, doing everything I hope to do in the next decade." Growing up as a rugby player in Australia, Mitchell explains he had no educational aspirations before serving a full-time mission. But seeing these delegates from similar backgrounds and cultures, he's realized education and networking are crucial to creating opportunities and solving world problems.

Students also met with BYU–Hawaii alumna Tiare Marumatakumanu. As a former student, she attended the UN field study trip in 2019. She now works as an Alliance of Small Islands States (AOSIS) Fellow in the Samoa permanent mission. Her advice and example to current students stand as a living testament to the university's mission; to prepare students of Oceania and the Asian Rim to be lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ and leaders in their families, communities, chosen fields, and in building the kingdom of God.

Eight individuals gathered together for a picture at the Samoa Permanent Mission at the UN.
Photo with former BYUH Political Science graduate, Tiare Marumatakimanu, AOSIS Fellow, Permanent Mission of Samoa to the UN.
Photo by professor Christina Akanoa

Following the visits with Permanent Missions, Akanoa shares, "We received very favorable comments on our students this year from the Permanent Representatives on their level of understanding, preparedness, and the types of research topics they were attempting."

Most student takeaways concentrate on the 2023 conference theme: "Indigenous Peoples, Human Health, Planetary and Territorial Health, and Climate Change: A Rights-Based Approach." Ainsley Aiono, a Pacific Islands major, noted that climate change is the "most pressing security issue in the Pacific, and mitigation and adaptation measures must be a top priority globally to enact real change" in the smaller Pacific Island regions.

Calling Australia and the Cook Islands home, Brown shares in the concern held by Pacific Island leaders regarding the climate crisis. Seeing this at the forefront of the agenda was fascinating as he's learned the effects of climate change aren't just environmental but also impact food production, access to clean drinking water, and even human health. Brown shares, "Despite being from small island nations, the people of the Pacific are leading the fight against climate change! There is so much being done behind the scenes to protect our islands, and as BYUH students, part of our mission is to contribute to these great works to promote Christlike leadership, international peace, and the building of God's kingdom."

BYUH students standing inside the UN Conference room.
Photo by professor Christina Akanoa

Additionally, BYUH senior from Fiji, Rashan Prasad, explains his key takeaway from the trip was learning more about the importance of a "rights-based approach" when addressing unique challenges indigenous communities face. As a Fiji native, Prasad was delighted to hear how various countries, including those from the Pacific Islands Forum, are working to protect Indigenous rights and address climate change impacts on the indigenous populations. He adds, "This rights-based approach is crucial in developing effective solutions that respect and uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples while addressing their specific needs."

The UN field study has left a lasting impact on the students who participated, shaping them into the leaders and changemakers of the future. It opened their minds to a world of endless possibilities, broadening their horizons and instilling a sense of responsibility to promote peace and catalyze change on a global scale. By providing them with invaluable exposure and insights, the UN representatives and other international organization leaders have empowered these students to become agents of positive transformation in their communities and beyond.