Throughout her undergraduate years at the University of Guam, Elyssa Santos had taken not only an academic but personal journey—reliving parts of Chamorro history few remember.
Diving head first into the lives of those whose memories are saturated in the past, the UOG alumna gained a greater understanding of her island, people, and herself. And in everything she did, that excitement and passion for the Pacific grew stronger.
So when the opportunity to further her studies came, like wind in her sails, she found herself once again on a journey.
“I wanted to explore more about the Pacific,” she said, “and the way I see it, I’m going on a bigger adventure and treasure hunt to see what’s out there.”
Santos was recently offered the East-West Center’s Graduate Degree Fellowship to study at the University of Hawaii Center for Pacific Islands Studies. The fellowship, which covers all expenses, provides students the opportunity live out the mission of the East-West Center, which is to bridge the gap between eastern and western cultures in order to achieve peaceful relations worldwide.
Professor of History Dr. James Viernes saw something unique in Santos very early on in her academic career.
“She was my student in her first semester at UOG, and from the very get go, her enthusiasm for learning and the Pacific Islands was there at such a young age,” he said. “She’s worked closely with a lot of the History faculty, and she’s always impressed us.”
And in 2014, Santos also impressed a room full of the world’s foremost experts in Pacific history at the annual Pacific History Association (PHA) Conference held in Taiwan.
While choosing a topic for a class-assigned research paper, Santos eventually interviewed the one person she knew who could help her better understand the past: her then-93-year-old grandmother Francisca Quintanilla Franquez.
Franquez told stories of a colonial project which transformed into a thriving economic hub and social center for Chamorros during the American Naval Era—a farmers market located right where the Chief Quipuha statue now stands in Agana.
It was this research paper that propelled Santos to the front of a classroom at the National Taiwan University as the only undergraduate presenter at the 2014 PHA Conference.
“I remember being extremely nervous,” she admitted. “At the same time I got a lot of good feedback and was very blessed to have a good audience.”
Santos went on to present again at this year’s PHA Conference held at UOG in May.
“We’re very proud of her,” Viernes said. “She was able to handle her presentations with humility, grace and academic professionalism.”
Santos was also part of the first cohort of students to graduate from the Chamorro Studies program, which began in 2013.
Pairing that alongside her History major, Santos saw real potential in the interdisciplinary work that could be achieved.
“I feel like there’s so many paths these could lead you on—the idea that I could have a future career in something dealing with myself that will allow me to learn about myself and give back to my people someway,” she said.
One such path was being a delegate for this year’s Festival of the Pacific Arts under the history genre of the literary arts committee.
Santos helped organize discussion held at the Sen. Angel Leon Guerrero Santos Memorial Park in Agana, where people from across the Pacific shared creation stories, WWII narratives, and more. The committee chairs also hired her as the project director for an oral history project on traditional Chamorro singing-storytelling.
This summer, Santos is working on a grant through the Micronesian Area Research Center to help standardize a textbook for teaching the Chamorro language at the college level—a project that aligns well with her interests and goals, she said.
Come August, she’ll make her way out to the East-West Center—an internationally recognized education and research organization, which also requires its Graduate Degree Fellowship participants to engage in workshops, programs and other activities to promote collaborative relationships between the people of Asia and the United States.
“That really excited me,” Santos said. “Honolulu is really the crossroads where Pacific Islanders, people from Asia, and people of the mainland meet.”
And with the support and preparation from her professors, Santos said she feels ready to take this next step.
“I feel like my life is so much more rich because of the programs I was under here at UOG for my bachelor’s degree,” she said. “History and Chamorro studies both taught me a lot about myself, my people, my culture, and my history.”