Over 50 years ago, volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began transforming 12 acres of former taro root fields on the northeast shore of Oahu, Hawaii, into a center representing the cultures of South Pacific nations. This past week, the now 42-acre Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) celebrated a half-century of sharing Polynesian heritage and facilitating the education of students from around the world.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles attended some of the 50th anniversary festivities and noted that although the center may be known to some solely as a cultural attraction, its focus is education.
“The whole reason for the Polynesian Cultural Center is to enable students to get an education,” Elder Nelson said.
In early 1962, then-Church President David O. McKay authorized construction of the nonprofit center to provide much-needed employment for students at the Church College of Hawaii (now Brigham Young University–Hawaii) in the town of Laie. Polynesian students at the school had previously created a successful production of South Pacific island songs and dances, and Church leaders hoped the new center would help students earn their way through college by sharing their island heritage with visitors.
That hope has been realized many times over, as the PCC has provided more than $178 million in total financial support to BYU–Hawaii students since its dedication in October 1963. As a nonprofit organization, 100 percent of the PCC’s revenue is used for daily operations and to support education. The center typically helps 600-700 students fund their education every semester.
“[The] income from their efforts at the Polynesian Cultural Center allows them to pursue their education,” Elder Nelson said. “That's their reason for being there. It's not to sing and dance; it's to learn. But to be able to learn without going into crushing debt is a very liberating concept.”
Students working at the center are typically able to cover half of the cost of attendance (tuition, books, room and board) with their wages. Family contributions, plus grants and loans from the university’s donor-funded aid program, help cover the remaining cost.
The 2,700 students at BYU–Hawaii come from over 70 different countries, creating a distinct multicultural environment. The impact of the university-PCC partnership is now more global than it has ever been, said Elder Nelson.
"[The students] have learned to live with one another — from different countries, different cultures, different languages — together in peace,” he said. “They really are learning how to promote peace internationally.”
Last week, the center welcomed hundreds of former employees back to Laie. Dancers, musicians and other artists from the center's earlier years reunited for two alumni shows and a variety of other events.
The returning employees saw new buildings and staff but no change in the center’s mission to help students. For 50 years, the Polynesian Cultural Center and BYU–Hawaii have worked hand-in-hand to create a learning environment like no other.
"It's a very symbiotic relationship," said Alfred Grace, president and CEO of the Polynesian Cultural Center. "BYU–Hawaii provides us with the manpower to operate the Polynesian Cultural Center, and in turn, we provide the students with employment opportunities to not only help support their schooling but also help prepare them for gainful employment when they return to their homes."
BYU–Hawaii President Steven C. Wheelwright is quick to point out how part-time work benefits students. "Because we are interested in the education of the whole person, we see opportunities like those presented at the PCC as an integral part of a student's education,” Wheelwright said. "In fact, there is great evidence nationally that students who work part-time do better in their education because they organize their time better, they plan better and use their money more wisely."
Student employees at the PCC work in over 50 different job classifications, many of which are directly related to their courses of study at BYU–Hawaii, including finance, accounting, management information systems, operations and marketing. Student employees also serve in supervisory positions, where they gain valuable experience overseeing the work of others.
Tiare Pauli, a junior from Mooloolaba, Australia, has worked at the PCC for two years. Pauli is studying communications and sees the way her job and studies complement one another. "I think it's really the perfect match,” Pauli said. “Working here, you have to learn to communicate with all different kinds of people. How you present yourself is really important."
Many PCC alumni reflected on the close bond that still exists between performers. Ka'ipo Rokobuludraw, who currently lives in Lehi, Utah, had not returned to Laie for years, but she eagerly reconnected with friends and classmates now living around the world.
"There's a special bond, kind of like family," Rokobuludraw said. "I feel like I am related to these people."
The relationship between the Polynesian Cultural Center, BYU–Hawaii and the Laie community helps foster a spirit of connection and understanding among cultures, something Rokobuludraw says she cherishes.
"I hope I can take back with me the spirit of Laie," Rokobuludraw said. "There's something very special about this place. Being here and sharing that aloha spirit with the people you shared it with when you were a dancer is really exciting. It gives me goose bumps."