The Oberlin Stories Project

On a poignant winter term project

Megan Cox ’18

“The lessons I learned and the experiences I added to my cache in life have yet to fully reveal their meaning to me; I know, however, that these lessons will continue to guide me throughout the rest of my Oberlin education and beyond.”

Megan's elegant dessert has a lit candle at the center.

During winter term 2016, I designed an independent project in which I studied culturally informed conflict resolution and peace education on the ethnically diverse island of Oahu, Hawaii. The road to the realization of this project was tumultuous, but through the help of Oberlin’s Office of Winter Term, the peace and conflict studies program, a certain open-hearted Oberlin alumna with a house, various organizations in Honolulu, and (of course) my mother, I soon saw myself on a plane to paradise. However, we all know that none of these stories are that simple.

I struggled with the bus system, attempting to learn the ropes of navigating the city during my hour-and-40-minute commute each day. There were times when I was afforded a certain amount of independence, though other times when I found myself in quite the opposite situation: I got lost at least twice, missing an important meeting with an executive official once and brazenly walking myself through a homeless park before realizing my directional error. Those were times when my host (bless her heart) would drive out to find me on a bench and take me back on the right track. During these trials, I learned to be aware of my surroundings and to take charge of my own path.

I struggled with acclimating to the island culture. I usually get worked up over obligations and assignments, striving for perfection, agonizing over tardiness. The aloha lifestyle, however, does not adhere to these unnecessary anxieties. It took more than half of my time on O’ahu to adopt “island time” and cut myself some much-needed slack. Through this internal struggle, I learned more about patience and self-forgiveness than I had anywhere else on the mainland.

I struggled with my identity. Hawaii is one of the most diverse states in our nation, and the only one in which white people have never been in the majority. I felt the strong urge to resist appearing like a nosy white tourist when asking questions about cultural comprehension and ethnically diverse peace practices. I quickly became hyper-aware of my standing in the world, and I saw myself growing more reserved and quiet. I was not asking any questions for fear of overstepping my self-made bounds. It wasn’t until I shared a very personal and meaningful conversation with an older native Hawaiian woman named Ilima that I began to step outside of that comfort zone. I learned to approach sensitive topics with an honest sense of curiosity and desire to learn. My approach was answered kindly with open conversations and kind individuals of all backgrounds engaging my curiosity, leading to my overall learning and growth. This uncomfortable step enriched not only my project, but also myself as a developing citizen of the world.

Like almost everything at Oberlin, the point isn’t simply to complete your checklist of “to-do” items. Yes, my days in the office of the Family Peace Center doing research on culturally informed domestic abuse counseling made me more informed about the struggles and strategies of mitigating these conflicts, and planning with the teaching staff at the 'Iolani School for their Peace Week gave me insight into their passion for peace education and their unending ingenuity. However, those aren’t the parts of my winter term that I remember the most. I can still feel the sun in my eyes as the Samoan woman and her half-Filipina, half-Samoan daughter talked with me at the bus stop about the irony that she, a petite woman, was often mistaken as the Filipina half and her burly husband for the Samoan, though the reality was the reverse. I remember experiencing what being in the racial minority felt like, though the institutionalization of racism still played in my favor (the Dole plantation is a physical manifestation of that hierarchy). I see the beautiful bouquet of exactly 17 red flowers Ilima pinned in her hair every morning, and I can hear the sweet melody of her ukulele as she softly strummed and sang in the Hawaiian language to a picture of her mother. I can taste the wonderful dinner my host family treated me to on the night of my 20th birthday—in lieu of cake, we enjoyed a wholly Hawaiian dessert of fruits, caramel, and macadamia nut ice cream, complete with a candle on top.

I recall, in particular detail, a conversation with a 17-year-old 'Iolani student as she drove me back to my home-stay at night. She joked that she was the palest, blondest, most blue-eyed girl living in Hawaii, though she is actually half native Hawaiian. She talked openly about race relations, her experiences as a white native Hawaiian, and the controversial attempts of some Hawaiians to reclaim their land from the United States. She concluded, “Well, my take is that it all happened in the past. It sucks, it was wrong, but it is over. And we have moved on as a community. We should now just try to embrace all the different lives existing on these islands because there is so much to gain from learning and working together.”

The lessons I learned and the experiences I added to my cache in life have yet to fully reveal their meaning to me; I know, however, that these lessons will continue to guide me throughout the rest of my Oberlin education and beyond. Currently, I am using the lesson I learned when struggling to ask questions about culturally informed conflict resolution to draft an outreach plan targeting Latino business owners and entrepreneurs for my internship at the Des Moines Downtown Chamber of Commerce—and, of course, I have learned to take a deep breath in times of stress and remember to make time for maluhia (peace).