From STEM to STEAM: An Interview with Isa Kelawili Whalen

Isa Kelawili Whalen is a senior at UW majoring in Anthropology and double minoring in Diversity and Oceania and Pacific Islander Studies (OPIS). She is also an Ocean Nexus Indigenous Ocean Ecologies Fellow, a year-long research fellowship focused on the intersections of sovereignty, wellbeing, and environmental justice among Indigenous coastal communities, especially in the Pacific Northwest. She also coaches soccer and plays on the Guam women’s national team.

Isa got connected with me due to our mutual interest in research in the Lower Duwamish River. I sat down with Isa one day over Zoom to discuss her research, goals, and what has been getting her through this pandemic.

Sam: What drew you to apply for the Nexus Indigenous Ocean Ecologies fellowship?

Isa: Before applying, in the winter and spring quarter of 2020 I was in two research families listed under Anthropology 499. Both were small cohorts of Pacific students similar to myself, who were majoring in Anthropology or minoring in OPIS and interested in Oceania. For the first quarter, we were at the Burke Museum studying nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. The spring quarter class was titled “Pacific Legends, Short Stories, and Literatures.” Both of these research fams were proctored by Professor Holly Barker, but it was definitely student-led which is why I loved it so much. We created an environment where it was Talanoa methodology: reading and analyzing films or articles then coming to the class session to have a full-on discussion.

Research family for Anthropology 499 (Engaging with Oceania) under Dr. Holly Barker. Photo courtesy of Isa Kelawili Whalen.


We would also have Zoom calls with Pacific scholars and high school students from the Northern Mariana Islands (NMI) who were also studying nuclear contamination. They had their own nuclear cohort at their school and we met with them five times. It was really cool because they also incorporated music to send out worldwide, just for people to pay attention to what’s happening there. We discussed what we were reading but asked them what is actually happening in their own home. We analyzed readings, met with authors, and had discussions about what we can do in today’s world to create change or look for solutions, and how we can make that known in higher education. Then Holly Barker forwarded me the application to the Indigenous Ocean Ecologies (IOE) Fellowship.

Sam: What projects are you most passionate about right now?

Isa: Academically, the most exciting project is with the IOE fellowship. I like hands-on work, being in the moment working with people, and learning from them, preferably in person. I feel like I can relate to things more like that. I can create more relationships and understand more than I could from a textbook.

My project questions for the IOE fellowship are: What is the historical or contemporary cultural significance of the Duwamish River, the Duwamish Tribe, and urban Indigenous community in Seattle? In today’s world, how does the Duwamish Tribe work with actors to improve the water quality of the Duwamish River? What traditional ecological knowledge or science do these coalitions engage with to accomplish a common goal?

The medium I am most passionate about right now is film, because you can learn so much from it. For example, in one of the anthropology courses I took, we watched a film called Papa Mau:  The Wayfinder, on how to navigate traditionally, without using any settler science, by having a master navigator with you. In film you learn about the people, the relationships, the passion, and everything intertwined in that. If people were to watch a film like that, it would easier to remember what you learn, because you get to make that personal relationship to whatever you are viewing, to connect a face to a situation. Emotionally, it sits with me more.

One of my underlying goals as part of the IOE project is to support a movement from STEM to STEAM. Incorporating the “A” – which stands for the arts – means practicing non-traditional ways of using art in higher education. For example, if there is a film about Indigenous knowledge, it’s usually not put out there for us, so I wanted to create another piece.

My current personal project is applying to grad school. I’m excited but also nervous. I am considering applying to the University of Oregon’s Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies Ph.D. program. I want to do some comparative race relations work there, to see how race formations and race relations are constructed.

Sam: We have been living through the COVID-19 pandemic for almost a year now. How have you been balancing school, research, work and social activities (as limited as they need to be now)? What has given you hope and joy during this tough time?

Isa: I don’t even know how I manage to balance everything when I’m looking at my planner! I have all my classes in the early morning, then I go to work from 4 to 9 pm. Then I have Pi Nu Iota, which is a business Filipinx interest group. Our meetings run until 11 pm, and then I do homework until I fall asleep. I always hope I can get everything done on the weekdays so I can just have time to relax on the weekend. It works out because a lot of it is virtual, so I can stay home and can get more work done. That’s one way I’ve been able to adapt during this year of COVID.

What keeps my spirits high relates to my backstory, in that I am a military dependent and my father is in the Navy. My whole entire life was the military life, where you move around, constantly create new communities, and then leave them. Since I was a freshman in high school, I’ve been separated from my immediate family. My dad was stationed on Guam, where I am originally from, so my parents and siblings moved back. I stayed in Washington State for college, soccer, and education: benefits that are only available on the mainland of the U.S. So home to me is not where I am Indigenously from, it’s just where my family and support system is. Even with having to see them only virtually for the past seven years, it’s where I feel my heart most supported. So that is where my heart is. It’s not something tangible.

What gives me hope is being surrounded, even through Zoom, by that support system. Clinging on to the knowledge that we will see each other when all of this is over gives me motivation to keep going. The sacrifices that my parents made are so we can reunite and be together again when I finish school.

Sam: How do you feel that Indigenizing academia will improve environmental, economic or cultural outcomes for your community or other communities?

Isa: I think that in general, incorporating a lot of Indigenous or traditional knowledge into conventional research is a win-win for both sides, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It benefits Indigenous communities because it is recognition in a professional setting that we don’t see happen regularly. Eventually, that recognition will become acknowledgment, visibility, credibility, and more. Meanwhile non-Indigenous communities get to learn from a firsthand perspective. They get to learn things more in-depth than we have in our textbooks today.

On top of that there are new practices and ways of knowledge many have never heard of, like storytelling. My passion throughout undergrad is that commitment to move from STEM to STEAM: to learn as much as I can from both the arts and STEM because it can widen the amount of knowledge. If we are limited to only mathematical methods or Latin names to describe the things that we study, then we cannot explore topics emotionally or with the soul. Some people say it makes you feel more in touch with your community, grounding you in the earth, and that you feel more connected to the past, present, and future.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (September 7, 2018) – Isa showing a commemorative plaque for the participation of Guam women’s national team in the EAFF E-1 Football Championship Round 1. Photo courtesy of Isa Kelawili Whalen.


Sam: What has it been like coaching soccer and playing for Guam’s national team?

Isa: I still play on the Guam women’s national team, and I’ve been playing with the national team since I was thirteen. Our last tournament was in freshman year and I did college abroad, which was super challenging. I was away during my fall and winter quarters, playing in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan for the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. If COVID numbers get better we will have the EAFF (East Asian Football Federation) E-1 Football Championship, which are qualifiers going into the World Cup, sometime in September.

Whenever we have a tournament they fly us back two months in advance to train, and we have to take time off from school to train so it can sometimes be as long as three months. I have to take my academics with me. Last time, there was a lot of re-enrolling in classes. I had to plan it all a quarter in advance. I think all this travel fed my anthropology brain because I was in SAFS (the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science) at first, but traveling a lot more made me interested in what the world is like in different places and how we view those places in the States.

Sam: What is your theory for change? Or what do you think are the most effective avenues for shifting our society towards a more sustainable, more ethical, just future?

Isa: There are a couple of ways I go about this. I am taking a sociology course right now and learned about a model called ARC (acknowledgment, redress, and closure). This is a basic structure for creating change economically and socially, and it’s how I want to frame my work in grad school.

What I would be looking at is the history of local communities, including first- and second-generation immigrants, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, people of color, and marginalized communities. How are race formations constructed by society? What are the limitations placed onto our marginalized communities? How do they take up space and place? Building on that, I’d like to look at how we can create support programs by working within nonprofits or governments to support these communities in predominantly white institutions to create that pathway for change.