Hawai’i: UCLA Hawai’i Travel Study

Natalie Bagaporo

Natalie Bagaporo is a rising fourth year student pursuing a double major in Human Biology, Society, and Genetics and Asian American Studies. Formerly a an Asian American Studies minor, her service learning experience this summer convinced her to change her course of study. Originally hoping to just finish out her minor, Bagaporo joined the UCLA Hawai’i Travel Study program for an insight into historical issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality and US colonialism in the Hawaiian islands. Beyond the textbooks and classroom, she also participated in the program’s various optional service projects.

Over these five weeks, Bagaporo along with her classmates were allowed into various sacred Hawaiian cultural sites to experience and apply what they learned through service projects. Their unique access to these private spaces was due to the longstanding relationships formed between her professor and the community. She especially valued these opportunities that allowed her to become a part of the Hawaiian community and build personal relationships with individuals. Their projects varied greatly but all revolved around the community’s relationship to the earth.

At Ka Papa Lo’i o K​ā​newai, their first site, her and her classmates were tasked with caring for a local taro field. Working alongside adult and children volunteers from all around the community, they cleaned litter, restored irrigation systems, and put out fertilizer for the plants. At another site, they helped restore an ancient fish pond by rebuilding its wall structure. Knee-deep in water, Bagaporo helped form a conveyor belt for passing stones that they then used to reconstruct the pond that would help sustain the local community. Another project involved uprooting mangrove trees, an invasive species. She then assisted with burning some to prevent regrowth and repurposing some for rafts and fish pond gates.

Though each service site ranged in projects, Bagaporo describes how each day of volunteering began with the recitation of a chant to enter the land along with community stories. Despite changing tasks, the respect for the earth remained constant. These experiences all emphasized the importance of maintaining a relationship with nature where the people love and care for the land and the land in turn sustains and nurtures the people.

Though these cultural exchanges became the most memorable part of her service experience, she also found herself struggling to navigate her own role as a foreigner and outsider. She describes it as a sort of “colonizer’s guilt” which made her question her right and privilege to access this knowledge and culture. However, one factor that helped her come to terms with her own identity and presence on the island rose from the overwhelming community support and inclusion. For example, each service project ended with the community feeding the volunteers with one big meal. After a mere few hours of meeting, she was embraced into the fold like another member of the family.


Throughout her service learning, she not only witnessed the power of Hawaiian community and culture but was also welcomed into these spaces with open arms. One memory she recalls is the dinner following a service day where local kids immediately requested Bagaporo’s contact information and asked to make plans to reunite. She was immediately taken aback and surprised by how these young children who just met her were so ready and willing to immediately embrace a lasting relationship. In another instance following an island event celebrating the Kingdom of Hawai’i, Bagaporo and her classmates planned to pay for a ride back to the university across the island. Upon hearing this, people from all around the community who had known them for only a few hours immediately offered to drive them back.


Bagaporo still remains in awe at how genuine the community is in their bonds and relationships.  Following her five weeks in Hawai’i, she hopes to become a messenger who can help spread the history, culture and values of the Hawaiian people to others in her Los Angeles community.

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