It was a trip of a lifetime for a group of Hawaii educators and teachers-in-training.
And Communication Professor Eva Washburn-Repollo, Ph.D. was overjoyed to be their guide.
Over the summer, Washburn-Repollo led participants of her Cebuano Language and Culture Program on a six-week adventure to the Philippines, offering them an immersive experience designed to broaden their perspectives and understanding of the country’s diverse languages and rich cultures.
The teachers visited indigenous herbal gardens, mangroves and coral reefs, attended language workshops, and participated in educational sessions at local universities and other institutions. But they weren’t just there to learn. Along the way, they developed cultural-based resource materials and curricula for their own classrooms—lessons aimed at weaving in their students’ perspectives.
Roughly a quarter of Hawaii public school students identify as Filipino.
“We all need to lift each other up,” said Washburn-Repollo, whose academic scholarship includes a focus on the positive impacts for students of cultural appreciation in classrooms. “When a student has a teacher who values their culture, they feel as if they can be anything they want to be.”
The trip was made possible thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad (GPA) Program. Washburn-Repollo took the group of eight participants to the islands of Negros Oriental and Cebu in the central Visayas region of the Philippines. That’s where the Cebuano language is primarily spoken—Washburn-Repollo’s first language and one of more than 120 found in the Philippines.
Those on the trip included current educators with years of experience and those just starting out.
Brittni Friedlander began her third year of teaching this fall and jumped at the chance to make the journey to the Philippines. She said she’s passionate about weaving science and technology education into her classroom and recently wrote a children’s book called Puff Saves Paradise.
“About 70% percent of my classroom last year were students of Filipino descent and I’m also half-Filipino,” Friedlander said. “It was an amazing opportunity to not only truly connect with my students, but learn a bit about my cultural heritage as well and incorporate that into my classroom genuinely.”
She said the most memorable part of the trip was the closing ceremony, during which all the participants got the chance to share their final lesson plans. Friedlander also enjoyed learning about the customs of the region, from the delicious cuisine to the herbal remedies communities use.
“As a teacher, I think it’s so very important to connect with one’s students on a relational level,” Friedlander said. “From here, I would like to use the knowledge garnered during this journey and share it in my classroom with cultural units or ‘around the world’ day with my students.”
Participant Clarissa Torres just finished her Master of Arts in Teaching degree at Chaminade and was quickly hired to teach eighth-grade science at Mililani Middle School. She wanted to make the trek to the Philippines so she could make more (and stronger) connections with her students. “I also wanted to learn more about my own Filipino culture and wanted to gain new perspectives as an educator,” Torres said.
She added that the program wasn’t easy—by any stretch.
Torres struggled with getting out of her comfort zone and developing a lesson plan.
“I created an original Cebuano song about the collectivism of the community in Apo Island as well as how they conserve water,” Torres said. “This experience expanded my ideas on how to incorporate all of my students’ cultures in my classroom and music is one thing I would like to weave in.”
She said by learning just a few simple phrases in Cebuano, she was already making relationships with people she met. “They appreciated our efforts to learn the language,” Torres said. “My biggest takeaway was I have a greater understanding of the beauty of learning a new language.”
Washburn-Repollo agreed what moved her the most about the people that the group met on their adventure is just how excited they were to share their time—and wisdom. “Everyone we met wanted to share their language with us,” she said. “Every preserved language is a door to a new solution to diseases, it’s a door to alternatives to happiness and peace. We have so much to learn.”
This wasn’t the first group Washburn-Repollo has taken to the Philippines. It’s actually the fourth, though the previous treks weren’t funded by Fulbright. The professor has also accompanied nursing students for a clinical immersion and organized trips focused on community building and finance.
Her central focus is helping people realize that broadening their own perspective and learning from groups who have no voice on the world stage has the power to unearth rich gifts of knowledge. And in classrooms, she said, it can do a wonderful thing: to ensure students from all backgrounds feel welcome.
“The key is making all students feel valued,” she said.
Participant Kalika Ayin couldn’t agree more. She’s an English Learner teacher at Pearl City High School and applied to the Cebuano Language and Culture Program because she wanted to learn more about her own students. “Many of my students are from the Philippines … so I wanted to learn about Filipino culture so I could improve my teaching and my communication with their families,” Ayin said.
She added that she was particularly interested in the program’s language immersion component “because I knew it would help me understand what my students experience when they move to Hawaii. I also wanted to learn enough of their language to make them feel welcome and seen in my classroom.”
The most memorable part of the trip for Ayin was graciously being invited into her Filipino teacher partner’s home and meeting her family. “She bridged me into her culture and helped me practice the Cebuano language,” Ayin said, reflecting on the trip. “Her hospitality and patience deeply impacted me. Our partnership fostered an international teaching network—and an international friendship.”
She also said that the experience of learning a new language through immersion helped her see the world a little better through her students’ eyes. For example, when she was using the Cebuano language in conversation but couldn’t find the right word right away, her stress levels rose. “It helped me understand how my students likely feel immersed in U.S. classroom settings,” she said.
And Ayin is looking forward to one lesson, in particular, this coming school year.
She plans to show her students a video she co-wrote and produced with her Filipino teacher partner detailing how to make the Cebuano dessert binignit, a fruit stew made with coconut milk, sweet potato, bananas and other fruits and vegetables at hand. “The video includes a narrative about the rich symbolism between the ingredients in binignit and the Cebuano culture,” she said.
Ayin said she’ll use the video to launch into a unit of study exploring food staples across the Pacific.
And then her students will get to work in the kitchen (and classroom), producing a cookbook to share broadly with families in Pearl City that incorporates Pacific dishes. “My goal is to foster pride in multilingualism,” she said, “and help students own their languages with confidence.”
LeAndre Browne, a doctoral student in education at Chaminade who teaches first grade in Georgia, wishes every teacher could go on a trip like the one Washburn-Repollo organized. “I’m a lifelong learner and was extremely interested in learning another language and experiencing another culture,” she said.
“Despite being from different places, people can share similar interests bringing them closer, like a love of plants,” she said, adding that she is particularly grateful for all of the relationships she was able to forge with people the group learned from over the course of six weeks.
Jessica Watkins doesn’t have a classroom of her own yet but said she can’t wait to bring what she learned in the Philippines to her future lesson plans. Watkins is majoring in Elementary Education at Chaminade and said there were so many memorable moments on the trip, that it’s hard to pick a favorite.
Learning Cebuano songs and then singing them at their final presentation. Staying on Apo Island, which has no cars and limited hours of electricity service. Getting to enjoy the region’s stunning coastlines. “I now know enough of the language to have basic communication with someone,” Watkins added.
“And that could help my students feel more comfortable in my future classroom.”