In the following personal account, SIT Samoa alumna Acacia Cochise describes the adversities of her childhood, her subsequent academic achievements, and her continuing exploration of different education and learning systems—particularly among indigenous and Western communities. Acacia holds a PhD in Pacific studies from the University at Canterbury and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Auckland.
By Acacia Cochise
I first journeyed to Samoa, from the USA, in 2007 as an undergraduate senior with SIT. The program explored the transition of traditional indigenous societies and globalization trends in Samoa and Oceania.
As the daughter of a white Lebanese Lutheran minister, and a black Apache man, I was raised between two very distinct socioeconomic backgrounds, and my childhood was defined by hardship. I grew up with my mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on welfare, in an artistic community; my father was in prison. In order to have a close relationship with him, I spent a lot of time in prisons and correctional facilities. Neither my father’s nor mother’s family accepted my parents’ marriage at first; when I was born, several people predicted I would become a ward of the state.
My personal survival is entirely due to the educators and educational programs that ceaselessly pushed me to be more than just a statistic. The educational program that had the most lasting and positive impact on me was SIT’s program in Samoa.
The program, which spent time in Samoa, American Samoa, and Fiji, focused on many aspects of indigenous ways of life. My Independent Study Project (ISP), “Ifoga: A Samoan Tradition of Forgiveness,” traced the evolution and cultural impact of ifoga, a forgiveness tradition that permeated into my own life.
Before my homestay in a Samoan village, I had almost no concept of a sentient communal identity. Being able to participate in a communal lifestyle helped me gain an understanding of the synergy of land and spirit, which then helped me move beyond the guilt and discrepancy of my academic youth.
Samoa helped me to understand that forgiveness of self and the situations that systems have forced one into lies at the root of change. The key is to learn how to harness the positive and negative aspects of an individual’s perception in the creation of a constructive curriculum.
The SIT experience in Samoa heightened my interest in the varying levels of and complex relationships between indigenous and Western cultures, different educational systems, and in discovering what it means to push the boundaries of what is expected of oneself, personally and academically.
I went on to earn a Master of Arts in indigenous studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand; my thesis was entitled “How unity can be created through meaningful and mindful interactions of traditional and western educational systems and their constructions of narrative and land: The Human Palimpsest.”
The juxtaposition of my experience in American schools with indigenous minorities and a New Zealand school with an indigenous majority during my MA studies influenced my decision to research the stories of Western and indigenous convergences in education systems.
This decision took me back again to Samoa. It was not a coincidence that in my search for globalized, multicultural pedagogies, I returned to work with SIT Samoa. While overseeing students’ Independent Study Projects, facilitating relationships between SIT and USP students, and promoting the importance of cross-cultural communication and empathy, I concluded that — through cultural immersion, experiential education, and deliberate academically fostered communication and discussion — Western and indigenous identities are capable of converging to better mutual and lasting understanding.
I am now a postdoctoral research fellow helping to conduct an evaluation of the In Zone Project. The In Zone Project is based in Auckland, New Zealand, and I am working with a team from The University of Auckland on its evaluation. The project gives a group of Maori and Pacific Island boys the opportunity to reach their academic potential and the same quality of education that other young people in the area of Auckland Grammar School receive. Auckland Grammar School has a long tradition of being dedicated to a high standard of student academic achievement. I am also helping to set up a network of educational programs and program evaluators across The University of Auckland.
The experiences I have had living and working within different education and learning systems, my own explorations of identity, and my stories lead back to and spiral out from my time as an undergraduate student in Samoa. Education, learning, knowledge, journeys, and experience are all part of life, inextricable from one another. Sometimes in our journeys, ethereal and corporeal aspects join together to touch and communicate. My experience with SIT Study Abroad Samoa was one such significant moment in my personal journey.
Samoa: The things we see in each other
We meet, and Samoa asks you like Samoa asked me,
What do you want out of this?
And you answer, speaking about
You want out
Of yourselves and the experience.
I’ve met you before.
I was you, four years ago,
Convinced I had no centre,
While the breath and stones of my body built
Cathedrals on top of institutions
On the centre of my universe.
We meet; our paths are destined to cross
We mark the stages of our growth in
Description, interpretation and evaluation format.
You major in business and economics in America,
But here, you are an anthropologist and:
Everywhere you think you hear music
(aitu are watching)
And you think everybody you talk to has something to say.
I’ve met you before.
I will be you again.
I am you every time I return to the land of the sky-bursters.
I wrote this poem in 2011 upon my return to Samoa.
Learn more about SIT’s Samoa: Pacific Communities and Social Change program.