Kalei Akau at a lū‘au at Dartmouth College in New England. - Photo: Courtesy Kalei Akau

My Dartmouth College journey began the fall of my senior year. Every year for a few days in October, the Dartmouth Native community brings American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian high school seniors to experience Dartmouth student life. I was fortunate to be one of 50 students admitted to this program the fall of 2013. It was a jam-packed three days attending classes, eating amongst students at the dining hall and sleeping in a freshman dorm room.

During this visit, I fell in love with Dartmouth and its community. I imagined myself among the students running from class to class, laughing in the bustling dining hall and hanging out in dorm rooms. The most meaningful part of the program, however, was making new friends with the other high school seniors. They came from backgrounds much different from my own – many of them grew up on reservations and were the first in their families to even consider college, let alone an Ivy League institution.

My short trip to Hanover made me realize Dartmouth was not only an institution where community is at its core, but also a community that recognized and valued its Native students. Dartmouth leapt from just a name on my college list to a school I hoped to call home.

Fast forward to September 2014 when, still in awe, I received the opportunity to call Dartmouth home for the next four years.

“I took pride in my roots and tied Native Hawaiian issues to every class I could in papers, discussions and homework assignments. ”

From the excitement of freshman fall, to finally finding my stride in the spring, the Dartmouth community truly felt like home. Despite the excitement of a new school and a new home, I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of courses, the intellect and talent of every Dartmouth student and the rapidly cooling weather.

Being a Native Hawaiian hula dancer from O‘ahu became my identity: Hawaiʻi stickers were plastered on my laptop, dancing hula was part of how I introduced myself and Hawaiʻi was my go-to conversation starter. I fully embraced this identity not only because being from Hawaiʻi in a small New England town was considered unique, but also because my identity was the only part of home I could cling to. I took pride in my roots and tied Native Hawaiian issues to every class I could in papers, discussions and homework assignments. Yet in these same classes, I felt like the token Native student tasked with educating my peers about Hawaiʻi and indigenous issues. Because of this, I gravitated towards other Native students whose indigeneity was at the forefront of their identities.

The Native community quickly became my home amidst the exciting yet overwhelming campus life. With other indigenous students, I did not have to explain the difference between being from Hawaiʻi and being Native Hawaiian. In classes about Native history, art, governance and development I found where my passions lie. A Native American professor made my thoughts and opinions feel valued and welcomed in his class. I attended conferences about various Native issues with the greater Ivy League indigenous community. Native upperclassmen helped me balance my school work, healthy lifestyle and social life. At the Native American House, I made Spam musubi when I felt homesick. For me, the Native community encompassed all these aspects – a student organization both within Dartmouth and across the Ivy League, an academic environment to learn and expand one’s knowledge about indigeneity, a support system and ʻohana and a physical space where students were always welcome.

Photo: Kalei Akau
Kalei Akau at a lūʻau at Dartmouth College in New England. – Photo: Courtesy Kalei Akau

After three years, the Dartmouth community continues to shape me in ways I did not imagine possible. Dartmouth challenged my understanding of the world around me, introduced me to a passionate and inspiring indigenous family and tested my ability to manage my time and stress. It continues to shape my future. Through Dartmouth I was able to study abroad in Aotearoa, travel to South Africa, pursue my passion for humanity and indigenous rights through anthropology and forge a new goal: attending law school and returning home to fight for kanaka maoli governance.

Sitting in my college counselor’s office four years ago, I never imagined Dartmouth would lead me to this path. Embracing a new community in a completely different environment with different people from different backgrounds has given me confidence to kūlia i ka nuʻu, knowledge to use in my professional life, and even more pride to be kanaka maoli.