In an island nation of 18,000 people, a university partnership has produced 250 graduates since 2005.
Having a university president sit in on the presentation of your master’s program is exhilarating.
Especially when the President traveled over 7,000 miles across the open ocean just to be there.
mid-October, Adela de la Torre was the first president of San Diego State University, attending the university’s longstanding but little-known bachelor’s and master’s programs in the Republic of Palau, an island nation in the western Pacific.
The first evening after arrival, the delegation of SDSU leaders arrived, which included the assistant vice president for international affairs Cristina AlfaroDirector of the Interwork Institute Caren Sax and Theresa LallyDirector of Interwork’s Center for Pacific Studies, observed seven groups of students making final presentations for their master’s degree projects — their final hurdle before graduation in May.
“Everyone in the cohort had heard about the SDSU President’s arrival to Palau, so they were excited,” the master’s student said Hedrik Kual, who is also Dean of Continuing Education at Palau Community College (PCC). “However, when we all found out that she will be attending the presentations, everyone got nervous. For my group – and very true for myself – it felt like a rite of passage as we earned our Aztec stripes in front of President de la Torre.”
Consider it a rite of passage passed.
“I was so proud to see our Palauan students put what they had learned into practice,” said de la Torre. “Everything I experienced during the visit illustrated the global impact of SDSU. It highlighted the importance of empowering local leaders and change-makers to address the social and environmental issues facing this community. The wonderful people I have met – many of them SDSU alumni – are creating a brighter future for Palau, steeped in culture and history.”
Empowering leaders and educators is exactly what SDSU programs have done in Palau for nearly two decades.
Before the program began, Palau pursuing bachelor’s degrees had to leave the island, a fact that created the conditions for a “brain-drain” emigration.
SDSU, through the Interwork Institute, helped fill the gap by signing an agreement with the community college in 2005. The new bachelor’s degree. “Interdisciplinary Studies in Three Departments” or IS3D allows students to create a curriculum by merging three distinct programs around a unified theme. A master’s degree in post-secondary education leadership was launched the following year, now offering selected courses in public administration.
“The idea was that we could deliver these degrees to help them achieve their vision,” said Sax, a professor emeritus who has visited the country to teach more than seven times. “It wasn’t about ‘Here we are, this is what we think you should do. But what do you want to do and how can we help you get there?’
“It’s always been the relationship and I think it’s served everyone well. There is a lot of trust and they value the program very much.”
SDSU faculty, primarily from the College of Education, teach in Palau for a week at the start of each class. Students then meet weekly for activities and discussions led by a facilitator on the island. There is also an online learning component that has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic – although finding suitable class times can be difficult given the 16-hour time difference.
Overall, the bachelor’s degree, which comprises 52 units after moving from the PCC, lasts 3 ½ years. The master’s degree lasts two years.
And the Palauan students graduate overwhelmingly. Sax found that in the youngest cohort, 28 out of 30 students graduated, with two students dropping out for health reasons. The undergraduate degree was a perfect 29-for-29.
“The people who have been in our program, they work, they have families and they are committed to being there,” Sax said. “Palau will fund young people to go off the island to get a degree , but getting them to come back and stay is another matter. This is a big problem because the population is so small. But all the people who participate in our program are there, they are working and they are investing in the future of their country.”
SDSU now has more than 250 graduates in Palau, a huge number in a country of about 18,000 people. Three of the 29 members of the Palau National Congress — two delegates and one senator — are alumni. De la Torre had the opportunity to meet the two delegates Frutoso “Toto” Tellei and Yutaka Gibbons Jr.
The program, Sax added, has proven mutually beneficial for SDSU faculty, giving them the opportunity to advance their research while learning about and adapting their teaching to Palau culture.
The SDSU delegation also met with the PCC President patrick tellei and US Embassy officials.
“At SDSU International Affairs, we are committed to expanding global equity in education through impactful, high-quality programs designed to prepare a new generation of globally aware educators and leaders,” Alfaro said. “Our work in Palau is a perfect example of how international diplomacy and the development of trusting relationships and collaborations can increase our ability to export outstanding SDSU graduates and ambassadors.”