Portrait of Hannah Bauer in Hilo, Hawaii.

Student wins national award as part of exchange program

Hannah Bauer immersed herself in Hawaiian culture during her studies in Hilo

Hannah Bauer’s time at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo was full of the experiences you’d expect from semester on the big island. She saw black, white and green sand beaches and of course, ate lots of poke.

However, Bauer went beyond the typical experiences of a student exchange program by taking full advantage of several opportunities to immerse herself into Hawaiian culture.

Although Hilo was special to Bauer for many reasons, one experience really stuck out to her.

Attending the 56th annual Merrie Monarch Festival that showcases Hawaiian culture and the best hula performances from hula schools around the world was an experience Bauer will never forget.

Tickets for the festival are very exclusive, but Bauer had the opportunity to volunteer as an usher through the university and attended all four nights.

“It was unforgettable to not only get to witness this event which perpetuates traditional Hawaiian culture, but support it and be a part of it,” says Bauer. “By the last night, everyone who sat in my section knew my name. All of the aunties brought me snacks and a little boy in my section gave me his Kukui nut lei which he made himself from the tree in his yard. When I say it was magical, I’m not exaggerating.”

Bauer is a senior in the South Carolina Honors College majoring in English and history and minoring in anthropology. Her interests in indigenous history are what led her to venture beyond UofSC and spend her spring semester at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo through the National Student Exchange.

As a research assistant, Bauer collaborated with a graduate student to create a piece of interactive sculpture that illustrates the relationship between Native American Removal Policy and generational trauma.

In addition to her research experience, Bauer participated in the Nā Ala ‘Ike Hawai‘i program for exchange students. Her participation in this program allowed her to gain further knowledge of Hawaiian culture through an introductory Hawaiian Studies class that offered her experiential-learning opportunities such as restoring an ancient fishpond at Kaloko-Honokohau National Park in Kona.

“It was an incredible privilege to take part in that kind of cultural revival and be a part of an ancient practice,” says Bauer. “Ultimately, in this era where climate change is rapidly accelerating, we should be looking to indigenous communities to understand sustainable practices.”

Along with these rewarding experiences, Bauer also faced many challenges, including the loneliness that comes from being 4,700 miles from home on her own.

“Unlike a lot of other study abroad programs, I was simply attending another university for a semester like a temporary transfer student,” says Bauer. “There were other exchange students there, but it wasn’t like we were all living, eating and learning together.” 

Bauer served as a student vlogger for the National Student Exchange. She shared her experiences through weekly videos that showcased her experience to hundreds of interested students across the U.S. Through her authentic and humorous personality, she demonstrated how to effectively apply academic interests and passions into a new campus and community culture.

“It was such a great way to document my experience and explain some of the things I was going through — sometimes part of my loneliness stemmed from being an outsider and not being able to express that," says Bauer. "I also just loved sharing what I was learning because I was and still am so excited about my field and figuring out where I fit into it. Navigating allyship is going to be a lifelong endeavor for me and I feel like I realized and accepted that during my time away. Vlogging and the processing that vlogging required me to do helped me get to that point.”

Based on her experiences, Bauer received the National Student Exchange Wendel Wickland Student Achievement Award, which recognizes students who demonstrate the best use of their study-away exchange participation.

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