Whitworth Students Make Impact in O'ahu Classrooms

You'd probably be hard-pressed to find a Whitworth student who wouldn't want to trade a trek across the snow-laden Loop in their boots in the middle of January for a trek across a Hawaiian beach, their flip-flops sinking in the warm sand.

This has become a reality for education students who are satisfying their intercultural requirement by teaching on the west shore of O'ahu, thanks to Keith Lambert, '91, assistant professor of education at Whitworth. He's been organizing the popular Jan Term program since 2015.

Lambert's first class comprised nine students, including Becca Bixby, '15, who's now teaching fifth grade at Rosa Parks Elementary School in Redmond, Wash. "Everybody kept telling me that the area was beautiful and a lot more diverse than Spokane," Bixby says. "Born and raised in Montana, I definitely wanted to experience Hawai'i." But when she and her eight fellow Whitworthians landed on O'ahu, the image she'd had in her head slowly morphed into something else entirely.

"I tell the students, 'Yes, we stay in a beautiful vacation rental on the beach,'" Lambert says, "'but just steps away are some of the most impoverished areas in Hawai'i. You'll see teachers filling up cabinets with food for their students who may otherwise go without.'"

For Bixby, seeing firsthand what these children experience really made an impact. "I had gone into it with an idea that it was going to be more of a vacation, and then to see this was a reality for them was very hard," she says. "A day on the beach was a treat for me, but for them it was survival."

Tiffany Bachman, '16, a fifth-grade teacher in Bellevue, Wash., accompanied Lambert on the second Jan Term program in 2016 and taught a kindergarten class at Wai'anae Elementary.

Bachman and Bixby agree that while they were welcomed by the youngest students, it took a while to build trust among the high schoolers and the adults in the community. "The people knew we definitely were not from around there," Bachman says, "but the staff and faculty were so welcoming."

"I had two days with a sub in my sophomore class," Bixby says. "The first day I had a substitute with me, the teenagers went crazy. They were standing on desks, running out of the classroom, even spraying each other with the hose. At that point, I hadn't earned their respect."

But, slowly, she did. "I think just putting in time and really listening to their stories and what they'd been through, helped me gain their trust." By the time the second substitute joined the class weeks later, Bixby, whose focus was on elementary education, was running the show.

For Bachman and her kindergartners, the trust came a little easier. "A lot of what I did in my class was pull aside the kids who needed extra support and just love on all of them," she says. "I realized how much you can do, even in such a short time. You can build relationships with your kids and connect with them by getting to know who they are, their interests, their likes and dislikes."

The trust that Lambert and his colleagues have established with the residents of O'ahu has enabled a special cross-cultural connection: Many Hawaiian students now attend Whitworth. For the past few years, Whitworth's football coach, Rod Sandberg, has been attending the Life Champion Senior Bowl in Hawai'i to recruit student-athletes. It's no coincidence that 18 Hawaiian students played for the Pirates last season. And eight freshmen from Wai'anae and Nānākuli began their four years here at Whitworth this fall, thanks to a sizable grant from the Kamehameha Foundation. The work and dedication of many Whitworth faculty, administrators and alumni made the students' presence on campus a reality, and they continue to work to foster relationships between Whitworth and students from Hawaii. People like President Beck A. Taylor and Greg Orwig, '91, vice president of admissions & financial aid, who traveled to O'ahu in October to talk about the Whitworth connection and how to expand it.

The support doesn't stop there. Dale Hammond, '98, Whitworth's director of alumni & parent relations, establishes and maintains the connection between the Hawaiian students and Hawaiian alumni living in Spokane, many of whom the current students now refer to as "aunties and uncles." They gather often for celebrations and barbecues, and for the students these gatherings feel like home.

Lambert knows his students are providing a big dose of what's become known as "the Whitworth way" to the people of Hawai'i. He recalls Bachman's mission on the last day the Whitworth students were on the island in 2016. "She was running around, saying she needed to go to the store and needed $3.50," he says, his voice starting to crack. "I asked her what she needed it for and she told me she wanted to buy one of her students a new pair of flip-flops." Bachman remembers the boy had been walking around with broken shoes for two days. She says his teacher was surprised she'd go out of her way to buy him new ones. "But to me," she says, "it's what he needed. It just made sense."

Lambert will take 19 education majors to Hawai'i in January 2018, double the number of his first group. They will now teach in Wai'anae and Nānākuli schools, which the students who've already been there are very pleased to hear. "I think what Keith is doing is really great," Bachman says. "He shared his dream with us, and now so many people's dreams are becoming a reality because of it."