Church College of Hawaii

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“Church College of Hawaii,” Ensign, May 1971, 42

Church College of Hawaii

In 1921 President David O. McKay, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, visited Laie, Hawaii, on a world tour of Church missions. After a stirring patriotic program presented by the Church-operated elementary school at Laie, President McKay wrote in his diary:

“As I looked at that motley group of youngsters, and realized how far apart their parents are in hopes, aspirations, and ideals, and then thought of these boys and girls, all thrown into what Israel Zangwell has aptly called the ‘Melting Pot’ … my bosom swelled with emotion and tears came to my eyes, and I felt like bowing in prayer and thanksgiving for the glorious country which is doing so much for all these nationalities.”

In this moment was born the vision of the Church College of Hawaii.

In 1951, thirty years later, David O. McKay became the president, prophet, seer, and revelator of the Church. And four years later, on February 12, 1955, ground was broken for the Church College of Hawaii (CCH). In September of that year the college doors opened in temporary facilities purchased from the U.S. Army at Laie.

Today CCH is perhaps the most international college in the United States. Forty percent of the students are from other countries located largely within the great Pacific basin, the area the college was designed to serve. These countries are Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, Australia, the Philippines, China, Japan, and Korea, with a leavening group of mainland U.S. haoles or palangi. There is a balance of Caucasians, Polynesians, and Orientals.

To understand the mission of this college, let us follow the course of one student, a Tongan youth, whom we’ll call Sione.

Sione’s home was a thatched hut in Tonga. As a youth he learned, almost unconsciously, the tremendous value of the coconut tree, yams, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, taro, coco, manioca, pork, chickens, and watermelon. He had never read a daily newspaper, nor had his mother read to him about the wonderful world of fairyland. Radio was unknown and is only now beginning to crackle in his fale (house), since a recent power line was installed. His village is fairly close to the humming trading center, Nuku‘alofa.

Sione had, however, learned how to dance and sing to entertain his elders. There were frequent guests in his fale, both relatives and friends. Beds for guests were no problem, for they slept on woven mats. Family gatherings were highly important social events. Sione and the other children responded readily to requests to perform native dances and songs.

Sione attended the village school, sat on the floor, copied the blackboard lesson on his slate, and recited lessons in unison, led by a teacher who had attended the teacher training college in Nuku‘alofa and who had six years of elementary schooling. High school had not been a part of the teacher’s training. That school was reserved for the intellectually elite who gained entrance by a high grade on an entrance examination.

Even without the help of modern sanitation, germ-free drinking water, or tuberculosis-free beef, Sione had somehow managed to develop great strength. He had excellent health. In his village he learned to play and love rugby.

The Church’s Liahona High School gave Sione his first experience at living away from home. Here he worked two hours daily on the plantation, had his own agricultural project, slept in the boys’ dormitory on a straw tick, and studied English, mathematics, biology, chemistry, history, religion, and vocational subjects.

When Sione finally arrived at Church College, he had no money. He had a change of clothing consisting of white shirts, ties, rubber thongs, one pair of shoes, a lavalava (wrap-around cloth), and a traditional ta’o vala to be worn on special occasions, such as luaus (fiefias), weddings, and birthdays.

He needed work. His board and room would be approximately $1,100 per year; his tuition, $400; and books, $80. The college immediately arranged a loan to pay for a semester of school, approximately $750, and found him a job. This loan was staggering. He had never seen that much money in his entire life. Could he pay it back? The college told him that he must work fifteen hours a week either at the college or in the adjacent Polynesian Cultural Center. His checks would be deposited in the college business office, and he would receive $10 a month spending money and up to $100 a year for clothes.

Sione chose to work at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which was established in 1963 at a cost of almost two million dollars to give employment to Polynesians and to preserve their culture. Nearly half of all the tourists in Hawaii visit the center to observe the village-life demonstrations of Tongans, Samoans, Fijians, Maoris, Tahitians, and Hawaiians, and to see and hear traditional Polynesian songs, dances, chants, and action numbers in the famous show Invitation to Paradise.

In his work at the center Sione enjoyed talking with the many visitors. He learned to have pride in his culture, and he improved his English by continuous conversation. He was amused to find that the haoles do not yet understand the difference between coconut milk and coconut juice. He showed the visitors how to make tapa cloth from the bark of the mulberry tree and a dance shirt from the wood fibers of the fau tree. He showed them how to cook pork in the umu (underground oven), how to keep fish fresh without a refrigerator, how to make rope from coconut fibers, how to use the coconut trunk and branches to build a fale, and how to use the pandanus leaves to weave coarse mats, fine mats, straw hats, and ornamental wall coverings.

By continuing to work fifteen hours a week during the semester and full time during the summer, Sione earned his tuition, board and room, clothing, books, and some spending money. In addition, he was able to send his parents financial assistance for family members.

Since at first Sione’s English was not good enough to compete on a college level with his American friends, he had to spend a semester in the college’s English Language Institute. Here he learned at his own pace, graduating to Freshman English when his language proficiency had increased sufficiently.*

Since the Church College is small, it could personalize Sione’s education. A departmental counselor supervised his registration and assisted him in educational assimilation. He was in English classes of not more than twenty-five students, and his English teacher corrected his themes in his presence. Chemistry was geared to his needs. Since Sione would probably be returning to Tonga to work after graduation, he chose elementary education as his field; there are many jobs available in this field in Tonga. His training in elementary education required classes in basic subjects, an arts and science major, and a full semester of practice teaching.

At CCH, Church leadership training on a practical basis goes hand in hand with regular classwork, so all students leaving the college will be qualified officers and teachers in ecclesiastical positions.

By the time he reached graduation, Sione had learned the value of American dollars and what money will buy. His work had taught him almost as much as his classes. He had learned to like American clothes and was rather smartly dressed. His education had been interrupted for two years, for he had accepted a call to serve as a proselyting missionary among the Indians in South Dakota. Sione enjoyed other broadening experiences. He visited Disneyland, performed in the Hollywood Bowl, and played on the rugby team which defeated the University of California at Los Angeles, Occidental College, and Loyola University of Los Angeles in 1967. Upon accomplishing this heroic feat, his team was named number one in the official United States rugby standings that year.

After much deliberation Sione decided to marry a Tongan girl and return to his country to make his home and professional career.

Back in Tonga, Sione and Mele, his bride, suffered a real cultural shock. They were amazed at the primitive conditions of their country. Before leaving Tonga, they hadn’t minded the lack of sanitation, the thatched dwellings, sleeping on the ground, cooking without electricity, the lack of hot water for showering, the lack of automobiles, shopping centers, and department stores. But Sione and Mele have some things that they find of superlative worth—an American college education and a fixed salary income based on the New Zealand government teacher schedule. Teaching in the Church schools in Tonga, Sione and Mele find their earning status to be somewhat better than their peers. They have suddenly become the wealthy relatives. Their new status in the eyes of their friends and relatives is overwhelming.

Sione is now beginning to build a European-style home, which will have hot water, inside plumbing, windows, bedrooms, a kitchen, a corrugated tin roof, and furniture. He and Mele want a utilitarian yard with breadfruit, banana, and papaya trees, vegetables, and watermelon. Using homemade brick, Sione will build the home himself with the aid of his family and friends. In return he will help others build their homes.

Interestingly enough Sione and Mele will be more effective teachers than many of their counterparts of palangi extraction who have been brought in from the mainland United States, because they know the language, the customs, and the people whom they serve. And they will have greater longevity of service than a palangi who may be serving in Tonga for three years or a similar period and will not know the Tongan customs.

Interesting story? Yes, and it is repeated many times over for the Filipinos, the Samoans, the Tahitians, and others who attend the school. Church College of Hawaii has made higher education available to its constituents from Hawaii to Hong Kong. In the words of David O. McKay, “From this institution … will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally.”

President Owen J. Cook has been head of the Church College of Hawaii since 1964. Prior to coming to CCH, he was an assistant superintendent in the Long Beach, California, Unified School District.