Indigenous-focused research prevails in master’s English program
Master’s alumnae Arielle Taitano Lowe and Leiana San Agustin Naholowa’a are both getting ready for a culturally enriching new phase of their academic careers. Both have been accepted into the doctoral English program at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and will begin their studies, individually crafted toward CHamoru and Pacific Island studies, this fall.
Their paths represent what UOG English Professor Evelyn Flores calls a “remarkable and gratifying trend” within the Master of Arts in English program at UOG.
Since the program started producing graduates in 2009, an increasing number of degree candidates have chosen to research local and cultural experiences, knowledge, and practices. Among thesis topics since the program began, the number exploring CHamoru and Pacific Islander identities or engaging in self-representation has grown from 0% of thesis topics in the program’s first four years to 44% in the next four years to 70% in the last four years.
“It is truly exciting to see this burgeoning interest,” Flores said. “A community of professors at UOG who have focused their careers on indigenous scholarship have fostered and nurtured a cultural awareness that builds confidence in our students — that, indeed, they do have a story to tell and that their way of telling it is theoretically sound and fully empowered.”
Over the next couple years in their Ph.D. program, Lowe and Naholowa’a will be carrying that empowerment to the next level — developing their ability to analyze texts, research issues, and teach at a collegiate level, giving the indigenous perspective a bigger voice and bringing needed cultural conversations to light.
Entering her undergraduate years as a CHamoru spoken word poet, Lowe was feeding her interest in culture and community early on. Then, having earned the Friendship Scholarship from the Tokyo-Pacific district of Rotary International just prior to her senior year, she was able to further expand her cultural interests by participating in literary arts, community service, and relations building opportunities throughout the Asia Pacific region.
For her thesis, she intersected many of the subjects she’d studied in her undergrad — sociology, social sciences, and literature — to analyze the poetry of three “Chamaole” authors from Guam and how they described their personal identities. Her research approach, which involved not only an analysis of the poetry, but interviews with the authors, earned her the Innovative Research Award in UOG’s Graduate Awards program.
Flores said the master’s English program has opened its doors to this more diverse approach to theses as more students are showing interest in transdisciplinary research.
“We not only welcome, we actually advise students to engage scholars beyond our discipline — scholars whose own research will productively expand their thinking horizons,” Flores said.
Inspired by the cultural and sociological aspects of her literary studies and encouraged by her professors, Lowe has chosen to take her education to the next level. She will focus her English doctorate on Asia Pacific cultural studies and will also take part in a selective fellowship with the East-West Center, where she will have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to engage and build a community with Ph.D. candidates from other Asia-Pacific backgrounds.
“I am most looking forward to the opportunities to grow not just as a scholar, but as a community member,” she said.
After completing her doctorate, she plans to return to Guam and help drive important cultural conversations and developments through teaching, community programs, or government work.
For Naholowa’a, a CHamoru and diasporic Hawaiian raised in Guam, the desire to explore her identity and cultural influences has remained a constant throughout her life.
With a particular interest in indigenous oral traditions, she knew that would be her “life path going forward” after completing her bachelor’s in literature and writing studies from California State University, San Marcos.
The English master’s degree program back home in Guam allowed her to simultaneously delve into both literary research and analysis as well as Micronesian studies.
“I appreciate how my English professors at UOG shared their literary passions with the students,” she said. “I learned about Beat poets with Daniel Robertson, modern Japanese novels with Chris Schreiner, television and film studies with Jason Vest, and Pacific Island literature with Evelyn Flores. Their classes have inspired me to pursue my own passions in turn.”
Building upon her undergraduate minor in women’s studies, Naholowa’a chose to focus her master’s thesis on CHamoru mothering through an examination of CHamoru history and canonical literature. What she found inspired her to create the documentary film “Mothering Guahan,” in which she highlights the CHamoru mother’s role and experience through oral interviews with women from three generations.
“The interviews in that project grounded me in indigenous orality, which is something I hope to continue in my dissertation work at UHM,” she said.
For her doctoral dissertation, she will draw insight and understanding from CHamoru myths and legends to inform Guam’s path forward. She also plans to continue her work in women and gender studies and wants to also explore CHamoru masculinity studies.
Adding to her teaching experience at various universities that include the University of Guam, Guam Community College, California State University in San Marcos, and Université Paris-Est in France, she will be participating in a graduate teaching assistantship throughout her Ph.D. program. She said she hopes to ultimately return home to Guam to work with students from this region, support local publications, and expand her research work in CHamoru literary narrative, history, and culture.
She said her professors and experiences at UOG — where she learned about the academic writing and publishing process, gained experience presenting her work at conferences, and strengthened her teaching capabilities — have thoroughly prepared her for this next step.
Students wanting to explore topics of cultural importance to them and this region have come to the master’s English program from varying undergraduate degree programs — from the CHamoru and Micronesian studies as well as from history, communication, education, political science, and other programs. And it’s a trend that Dr. Sharleen Santos-Bamba, associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, thinks will continue.
“Students are hungry for the opportunity to study, create, and research about Guam, our Micronesian region, and the Pacific in general,” she said.
And as long as that hunger persists, the Master of Arts in English program will be one avenue where those students can focus their passion and start a life journey of bringing indigenous and culture-centered narratives to the forefront.