One to Watch: Marissa Halagao ’23

While taking Asian history this past school year, Marissa Halagao ’23 wondered why the class was primarily focused on China and Japan, even though there are 48 Asian countries and Filipinos represent Hawai‘i’s largest Asian ethnic group.

As a Hawai‘i-born Filipina, she had never seen Filipinos represented prominently in her school courses or in the media. Determined to address the issue, she along with students and teachers developed a new, inclusive curriculum for Punahou and Hawai‘i’s public schools to broaden students’ understanding about the history and culture of the Philippines.

“You can go your whole life not seeing any Filipino characters or anything. That’s how it was for me,” she said. “We pride ourselves in Hawai‘i for being so diverse, but if we don’t embrace inclusivity or multiculturalism, then what’s the point? It’s important for students to see themselves reflected in education because it does so much for our self-worth and empowerment.”

Through a Global Sustainability by Design class at Punahou, Halagao initiated a project to address inequity in Hawai‘i, partnering with Academy faculty who were creating a new Asian studies course for the 2021 – 2022 school year. The course explores connections between the various regions of Asia, and Halagao helped create a unit on the Philippines to allow students to learn about the country and better understand Filipinos living in Hawai‘i.

Part of Halagao’s inspiration comes from her mom and dad’s childhood experience as immigrants from the Philippines who were discouraged from speaking their native language when they moved to the United States.

Her mother, Patricia, is now a professor and chair of the department of curriculum studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Ma¯noa. “My mom has definitely influenced me. She’s always taught me to question the systems put into place especially in education,” she said.

One of her mentors, Robyn Borofsky ’99 Vierra, who serves as director of global education at Punahou’s Wo International Center, said Marissa’s work has been a catalyst to explore how the School’s curriculum can reflect the diverse demographics of the Islands. “We are always working to be an inclusive place for students, so it is wonderful when students raise their voices and become co-designers in their curriculum,” she said.

Marissa is also collaborating with teachers and students from Kapolei, Farrington and Waipahu high schools to develop a Filipino studies curriculum for public schools. Her next step is to pilot it at schools this next year.

In late April, Marissa’s efforts were recognized by Spark and Inspire, a program initiated by Teach for America Hawai‘i and Hawaii Kids Can, to support projects that address educational inequity in Hawai‘i. She was one of three grant recipients, and was awarded $2,000 for her project. She was the first student to receive the grant; prior recipients were all teachers.

Although the funds will help push the project forward, Marissa said the highlight of her effort has been collaborating and bonding with public school students and Punahou teachers to make other Filipino students, like her brother Jordan ’25, feel more represented.

“All Filipino students deserve to learn about our history and culture, especially since we’re such a huge part here in Hawai‘i, and the invisibility of our history and culture has been long overlooked,” she said. “Now, I feel like I’m so much more in touch with my ethnic identity and culture than ever before. And it’s so great to advocate for something that I really feel close to.”

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