The Marshallese Studies Department at CMI is seeing strong student enrollment for its classes in the Spring Semester of 2018 — an indication of Marshallese students wanting to learn more about their roots, say teachers in the program.
The College of the Marshall Islands boasts a Marshallese Studies Department. Two packages of eight Marshallese Studies courses are offered as part of the Marshallese Language Arts (MLA) and Marshallese Social Studies (MSS) certificate programs. Common courses are Marshallese Orthography and Lexicon, Culture, Composition, and Grammar, while Marshallese Public Speaking and Creative Writing are additional focus courses toward MLA and Marshallese Government and Capstone toward MSS.
Additionally, there are two non-certificate courses teaching language for non-Marshallese speakers.
Marshallese studies classes have been taught primarily by outgoing chair Wilbert Alik and incoming chair Hermon Lajar along with adjunct and CMI Nuclear Institute Director Mary Silk.
“Marshallese Studies courses were born without a department or a program,” says Alik. These courses were created to meet Liberal Arts, Education, and Nursing social studies and humanities requirements. While the courses have been taught since 1994, a year after the College obtained its charter, Marshallese Studies became independent in 2015.
Before Alik and Lajar began teaching, they worked as teaching assistants for professor Chuji Chutaro and the late professors: Willie Mwekto, Honseki Jumon, and Juramen Komen. The young men sat in classes, observed, absorbed all they could of the indigenous knowledge the elderly men possessed, and built physical portfolios for each class.
Marshallese Studies finally became a stand-alone academic department in 2015.
The prerequisite for most of the courses is fluency in Marshallese. However, language barriers are still present for Marshallese who grew up in the US. Their receptiveness to the language is excellent — but speaking and writing in Marshallese is a challenge for them. Having said this, there are also students who were born and raised on island who also share the same difficulties with the US group.
The department believes this may be due to the fact that few write using the Marshallese Language Orthography Act, which was established in 2010. “Everyone writes his or her own way,” Alik and Lajar agreed. This is an challenge especially when it comes to older education majors since they, themselves, are teaching in schools and the old way of writing. It is a habit that dies hard.
The upcoming spring semester has already seen more than a couple of courses and course sections filled with students, of various majors, during CMI’s early registration period.
The greatest problem is the possibility of the department being closed down and taken back as part of CMI’s bigger Education Department. Alik said this would mean “the decision-making concerning the courses will no longer be in Marshallese hands.” As the first head of the department steps down, he passes on the jila (tiller) to the incoming chair. “The climate makes me uncomfortable and uncertain, but I wish CMI all the best in its continuing journey,” said Alik.
For more information: https://www.facebook.com/marshallesestudies/.
Read more about this in the January 5, 2018 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.