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Voices from the Region: A Conversation with Dr. Theresa Koroivulaono

REL Pacific
Laura Ostrow
December 13, 2019

Theresa Koroivulaono

“Instead of going into these Pacific Island nations and approaching education by saying, ‘this is the way you should do it,’ I find that it is important for us to act as partners and say, ‘this is what we are offering, can we see how you learn best?’ It is very encouraging to see that despite all of the challenges that our students, and students throughout the Pacific region face, there is still a yearning for learning.”
—Theresa Korivulaono (Ph.D.), president, College of the Marshall Islands (CMI)

Dr. Theresa Koroivulaono, Fijian by birth and descent, and a New Zealand national, received her university education in Auckland, New Zealand. After completing her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English, she returned to Fiji and worked as an instructional designer at the University of the South Pacific, (USP), Laucala campus. She graduated with her Ph.D. in English from the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Dr. Koroivulaono was appointed as the president of the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) in December 2014 and took office in April 2015. Her vision for the college focuses on transforming education opportunities and scaling resources through collaboration between Large Ocean States with selected international partners.

With the inclusion of blended or hybrid learning initiatives in the College of the Marshall Islands' Strategic Plan-Bujen Kallejar 2016–2018 and 2019–2023, Dr. Koroivulaono aims to strengthen and expand open and distance learning in the Republic of the Marshall Islands to increase access to cost-effective education opportunities. At USP, Dr. Koroivulaono worked as part of, and then led, the Learning Design and Multimedia teams at the Center for Flexible Learning, developing instructional materials for different modes of delivery, primarily to students in the twelve countries of the USP region. She also led a number of collaborative research projects at regional and international levels that focused on areas such as distance learning methodologies and best practices, open education resources, and leveraging technology for education. She has presented at conferences worldwide and published in the aforementioned areas.

REL Pacific staff recently had the chance to catch up with one of our governing board members, Dr. Theresa Korivulaono, about her work in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI)! Read on to learn more about Theresa's important work with her students and thoughts on education in the Pacific Region.

REL Pacific: Could you describe your role and mission in your current position at the College of the Marshall Islands?

Theresa: Here at the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI), our mission is nationwide. What we do here at the college often results in our graduates becoming leaders of our country. If you asked me, “what is one thing that stands out about the mission of college education in the RMI?”, the answer would be “nation building.” We are directly engaged in the business of nation building.

We are the only college for the whole country, which consists of 70 square miles of land and 750 thousand square miles of ocean. At any time, our population is between 58,000 and 63,000 people. The Marshalls have been historically called a “Small-Island Developing State,” similar to other island nations in the Pacific. However, we are Pacific Islanders who have lived here for thousands of years, so we see ourselves more as “Large Ocean States.”

In my position, I see what I do as facilitating existing relationships with partners and innovating. Here at the CMI, we keep finding out that it really is true that you can turn the challenges you face inside out and create several opportunities by being innovative and creative as a team, while choosing the right partners. For us, as modern Pacific Islanders, we have the need to become as qualified and as relevant as possible, particularly in higher and continuing education. Therefore, we need to make sure we have the right partnerships in place to enable that growth. We are all part of a global village, and we need to be able to punch above our weight as much as possible.

REL Pacific: What drew you to this type of work?

Theresa: Before I came to the Marshall Islands, I was an instructional designer and worked at the University of South Pacific (USP) in Suva, Fiji. USP is a regional university, with 12 Pacific Island member countries, including the RMI. [Because] our member countries are a sea of islands, I was tasked as an instructional designer with the responsibility of ensuring that students at the university who did not have access to one of the main campuses could still receive an education.

I did quite a bit of travel in the South and Central Pacific during my time at USP. What I found through this work is that there are a whole lot of new and exciting opportunities that we can create through partnerships and technological innovation to ensure that our citizens in the furthest reaches of our island nations have the opportunity to at least learn how to read and write. I found that it is important to have this type of enabling environment to open up opportunities for students. At the same time, I wanted to create a learning environment that also appreciated where our students were from.

Instead of going into these island nations and approaching education by saying, “this is the way you should do it,” I find that it is important for us to act as partners and say, “this is what we are offering, can we see how you learn best?” Students from Pacific Island nations use a lot of resources from their natural environment to build and to learn. For example, in their handicraft and artisan work, there is symmetry involved, and I see that as a math lesson right there. So, by appreciating what the strengths of the environment we are going into are as an instructional/learning designer, and now for me as president of the CMI, we can add value to the experience there.

REL Pacific: What are some of the current needs and priority areas that you see through your work at the CMI, and in the region?

Theresa: Many of my colleagues throughout the region have started to talk quite a bit about “place-based learning.” That is an area that still fascinates me and will continue to do so. As a student and graduate of the “western academy,” I come from a civilization and culture that learned to do things using different parts of the brain rather than using a book.

The question is, what will enable us to be as successful as possible in our chosen modern lifestyles, and what makes us equally successful when we go back into our villages and homes? The more we can do research and projects together as partners, the better the learning space that we can create. If we are to continue being leaders in education in our countries, communities, villages, and colleges, then we need to be learners at the same time.

One of my best experiences of partnership that has yielded many fruitful benefits for the CMI is our partnership with REL Pacific. We constantly create learning spaces together. I hope that by continuing to form these kinds of partnerships, we will be able to create more and more learning spaces, because we have discovered some sustainable benefits through learning. In my experience, one of the traits that I have consistently noticed regarding grant-funded projects is that there is a whole lot of good work that is done, we come together very quickly, and we are able to, on many occasions, achieve the project outcomes. The important task is to make sure that these outcomes are sustainable when our project partners move away, quite often with the resources that they bring in, in order to make sure that we can keep our initiatives going. Our big challenge as a Pacific Island community is to keep exploring ways of ensuring sustainability and then sharing these ways, if successful, to enhance the impacts of all of our work.

REL Pacific: Could you tell me more about your students at the CMI? What are some of their goals post-graduation?

Theresa: One of the questions that I ask myself a lot, and that we as educators who are not from the Marshalls need to ask, is “what motivates a Marshallese student?” When I look at the answers to this question, they are almost always based in community. They fit in the traditional realm of someone's life, are always family-oriented, and revolve around the idea of having enough to go around to ensure that traditional customs are carried out. There are some individuals who may say they want to travel, have a bigger house, etc., but a large part of our Marshallese students' drive for success is to provide a better life for their families.

REL Pacific: Could you describe the work that is happening to help students transition from high school to the CMI?

Theresa: For the first time in our history, not only as a college but also as a country, college instructors and public high school teachers came together to design a transition course. REL Pacific facilitated this process alongside Carnegie Math Pathways. We looked at some of the data we have on the rate of success of students here at the CMI when they come from high school, and we found that most of the students are coming into the developmental education levels instead of credit levels, which is not unlike other high school graduates in the region or in the United States. The data were overwhelming in that regard, but especially in mathematics. We decided to start off with math, which stood out as the more urgent area to address.

The design and the development of this course happened within the past year, and we are currently piloting the course this fall in our public high schools. The math course is predominantly algebra, so we are looking at potentially adding a statistics course to be offered at a high school level in grade 12 through a similar model of collaboration, while working to include our private schools as well. When students pass the exams in these transition courses in grade 12, they don't have to sit the College placement test like other students have to do to get into college. In a sentence, what we've done in terms of transition courses is truly ground-breaking.

REL Pacific: What are some challenges your students face, and how are they addressed?

Theresa: From my point of view, one of the biggest challenges that students face in the classroom is that it is a bilingual society. From their point of view, it is probably more monolingual as they tend to speak mostly Marshallese and only speak English when they are required to. The challenge there is improving competency in English. Math precedes that, as it has to do with a very special type of language, so if you don't have the competencies in the language of instruction, in this case English, there can be a lot of code switching going on in the classroom. Using English language for academic purposes is a big challenge for students.

Another area of challenge is that as a country, our standards of living are often not conducive to creating the best learning environments outside of the classroom, the school, or college. We are working on these challenges and are trying to establish more awareness with parents about how kids need to have those learning spaces at homes, but a lot of times family responsibilities may take over any other spare time that students may have.

Another challenge for our students is the trend of urbanization, as our populations are moving to Majuro and Ebeye, the more urbanized islands in the RMI. On those islands, we don't have the kinds of land rights that we have on our homelands such as planting, harvesting, and fishing. We have to learn how to rely on the modern economy and if we go in without the right kind of qualifications needed for a job there, all of the challenges and problems can escalate and when that happens, education is often a victim as students may choose to work and gain experience to feed their families instead of attending school.

REL Pacific: What are the strengths of your students?

Theresa: Even though there are so many challenges, we still manage to have increased graduation rates among our students. In addition to these rising graduation rates we have also managed to show, particularly in our summer programs, exponential increases in enrollment. More people are wanting to be students, and when they do become students, even if they take longer to graduate, more people are persisting.

For our three-year programs, we have a 20 percent graduation rate; however, in our two-year programs we have an eight percent graduation rate. While this is lower than our three-year programs, it is a four percent increase from 2015. Our goal is to raise our two-year graduation rate to 15 percent, and we are confident that we will be able to do that, for example through initiatives like our accelerated summer programs that we have introduced with the help of our partners. Our students tend to do better in these accelerated programs of learning.

We are looking at a whole lot of viable options for solutions based on our context, and our students are very much a part of that. They respond well to new initiatives, and it is very encouraging to see that despite the challenges they face, there is still a strong yearning for learning, and that people are adventurous enough to try new ways of doing things. I would say that one of the most positive characteristics I have experienced in our students here is that they are very adaptable.

We are very grateful to Theresa for letting us know about her work in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and her students!

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