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Haunani Yap ’06 has always wanted to get know the native Hawaiian part of herself.

Born and raised in Singapore by a Chinese father and Hawaiian mother, she spent time in Hawaii visiting her maternal grandparents.

But it wasn’t until the international affairs major spent this summer in Washington, D.C. on an internship that she truly understood the elements of her indigenous Hawaiian heritage.

Benefiting from internship endowment funds established by William A. Kirby ’59 and Franklin C. Phifer Jr. ’72, Yap worked at the D.C. Bureau of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs under bureau director Martha Ross, educating members of Congress about the aim of the office, formed through Hawaii’s state constitution to better the condition of native Hawaiians.

“When I’m at Lafayette, I listen to a Hawaiian radio station on the Internet and kept hearing mention of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs sponsoring a registry called Kau Inoa,” Yap says. “I kept hearing about this office, but I didn’t know anything about it, so one day I looked it up on the Internet and found a contact in Washington, D.C.”

Although Yap didn’t quite know where her search would lead, she ended up receiving one of two internships at the one-woman bureau.

“OHA is unique; it’s unlike any other office in the United States,” Ross says. “It’s almost like a fourth branch of the government with a board of trustees and all of the trustees are native Hawaiians. Their mission is very specific in terms of their focus, and that is striving for the betterment of the condition of native Hawaiians, but not just any person born there, specifically the indigenous people.”

Objectives include developing educational materials and writing meeting briefs to educate members of Congress and the federal government.

“We also reach out to the national organizations that need to know or want to know about native Hawaiian issues, such as pan-Asian Pacific organizations, Native American organizations, civil rights organizations, and different church organizations,” Ross says.

Yap aided in the preparation and distribution of 540 informational packets to members of Congress, helped clarify to policy makers the intent of the office regarding pending legislation that aims to re-organize native Hawaiians into a group that receives legal recognition by the U.S. government, and participated in a campaign to remind native Hawaiians living in the U.S. to support the bill.

“As part of learning about the bill and reminding people that they could support the bill through their congressmen and women, Haunani learned a lot about herself and the more she thought about it, the more it made sense to her and she drafted a letter of support,” Ross says.

The internship allowed Yap to meet the OHA board of trustees and become involved in a week of cultural activities. On the policy end, she watched an oversight committee hold a hearing for the reorganization bill and listened to Hawaii’s attorney general speak in favor of the legislation.

“It was a really good learning opportunity for her,” Ross says. “She helped with everything we did to get ready to put the bill to a vote, so there was a lot of activity, and you could tell she was learning by the questions she was asking.”

Yap, who wasn’t entirely sure what she was getting into when she applied for the internship, says it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Even if I lived in Hawaii, I would never have gotten to meet all of the trustees like that in one event,” she explains. “So it was very interesting for me and very exciting to meet them all at once, especially the chairperson, who is also a famous artist and musical performer in Hawaii.”

To Yap, the meeting with the trustees served a higher purpose.

“The other intern I was working with put it a great way: She said the trustees are the meat and potatoes of Hawaii. They really hold it close in their hearts and sustain the people of Hawaii in their hearts,” Yap says. “It’s good to have some connection to Hawaii because I don’t really get it here [on the mainland]. Up until now, I didn’t really know much about the culture. I knew the basic elements of respecting your elders, but any education beyond that was lacking.”

Having immersed herself in Hawaiian culture throughout the summer, Yap hopes to share her newfound knowledge with fellow students

“I am [a resident adviser] this year and everyone has a theme on their floor and for my theme I’m doing Hawaiian,” she says. “But not the fake Hawaiian, the real Hawaiian. Equipped with the knowledge that Martha and the trustees have given me, I am well prepared to go about doing this theme in the proper way. For example, one of the elements will be printing everyone’s name in Hawaiian and everyone’s name in English and I will incorporate different symbols into the theme and explain what they mean.”

On an academic level, the internship has given Yap some insight into potential job opportunities.

“This internship has helped me to become more familiar with American domestic policy,” she says. “I go to my American politics classes, but I’ve never seen or understood Native American or Hawaiian policies — what their situation is or what can be done to help.”

Yap hopes to return to D.C., or possibly Hawaii, with this knowledge following graduation and continue to explore policy-making positions for indigenous groups.

Yap is a member of the Iota Sigma Rho international affairs honor society, co-president of Alternative School Break Club, chair of International Affairs Club, International Students Association public information officer, Imagining America Project student assistant, and Dean of Studies peer counselor. She is a graduate of Singapore American School.

Categorized in: Academic News