(Photo above: Lu-A Kikuo poses on the UW Tacoma campus while holding the flag of the Republic of Palau.)
Knowledge of the past informs Dilluchei “Lu-A” Kikuo’s present and guides her future. “It has always been my dream to go to law school,” she said. “I believe that studying politics and law holds the key for me to becoming a competent and conscientious member of Palauan society.”
The Republic of Palau is a nation in the Micronesian region of the Pacific Islands. Kikuo was born in Palau and spent her formative years in the region. Her parents owned a laundromat and a convenience store. “I started working at the store when I was in fifth grade,” said Kikuo. “I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, got ready, put on my school uniform, and then opened the store and the laundromat and waited for the employee to arrive before leaving for class.”
Kikuo attended Xavier High School, a Jesuit institution on the island of Chuuk State which is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. “It’s a boarding school,” said Kikuo. “The boys live on campus but the girls live with sponsor families in the community.”
Until that point Kikuo had only visited other islands in the region. The high school she attended focused on college preparation. Kikuo graduated in 2009, and applied to and was accepted at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. It’s worth noting that Palau’s population is just under 22,000 people while the Los Angeles metro area is home to more than 13,000,000 very busy humans. “The culture shock was overwhelming,” said Kikuo. “Palauan life is centered around family and community and I was far away from all of it.”
Kikuo’s father hoped his daughter would major in business. “I tried to stick it out but I just wasn’t into it,” said Kikuo. A scholarship student, Kikuo still worked in order to cover living expenses. “I had a work-study job and was paying close to $14,000 a year for on-campus housing.” Kikuo left Loyola after two years for financial reasons.
She moved to Denver where one of her three brothers lived. There she married a fellow Palauan, a member of the U.S. Army who was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma. Kikuo stayed in Denver for a year while her husband was in Afghanistan. The couple reunited in Tacoma and welcomed a child, a boy, to the family in January 2014.
“These two years at UW Tacoma have been filled with so much meaningful learning for me as a Palauan student here, and I will always be grateful for that.”
— Lu-A Kikuo
By this time Kikuo had been away from college for more than four years. She decided to take some online courses through Tacoma Community College [TCC]. “I finished a quarter but then my father fell ill,” said Kikuo. “I dropped everything to be with him.” Kikuo and her son went down to Palau. The pair stayed on the island for a month while Kikuo’s father recovered.
Kikuo’s father passed away in October of 2015. Kikuo, her husband and child flew to Palau. “We ended up staying for two months so we could be with our families during the holidays,” she said. Upon returning to Tacoma, Kikuo re-enrolled at TCC. “I only had about two quarters left to complete my associate’s degree,” she said.
Getting to Palau from Tacoma takes multiple planes and about 20 hours. Kikuo may be far from home but home is never far from her. Kikuo transferred to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2017 to pursue a bachelor's degree. “I’ve always known that Palau is a sovereign nation but it was colonized by different world powers and I wanted to know why,” she said. “I also wanted to compare these modern political systems against our own systems of Indigenous governance.”
Kikuo found her major in politics, philosophy and economics. For her minor, Kikuo picked American Indian studies. “I read and learned about these American Indian stories and the Native American experience of colonization from Danica Miller's class, and I saw similarities with my own culture and its history,” said Kikuo. “That was the first time that my Palauan cultural identity felt comfortable and understood in a classroom setting throughout my college experience.”
A large contingent of Kikuo’s family is coming to watch her — and other members of her family — graduate. “I have a bunch of cousins in the area,” she said. “One is graduating from Central Washington University and another is graduating from Walla Walla University. So, our families are flying in the first week of June and we’re going to all of these graduations as a group.”
Kikuo plans to spend the next year working as a program specialist at TCC’s Writing & Tutoring Center. She’ll also use that time to prepare for the LSAT, the law school admission test. From there, it’s law school and, after that she wants to return to Palau. “There’s this feeling that you get when you constantly have to leave, and you’re always packing to leave that I really don’t like,” she said. “I just want to be able to stay in Palau with my family and my community forever.”
Kikuo feels the pull of home. Palau is a matrilineal society and Kikuo is ready to accept the responsibility of what that means. “I am the daughter in my family and I’m the one who’s supposed to be contributing the most to my family,” she said. “This is why my education has always been the goal, regardless of the long journey it took for me to get to this moment. I want to be knowledgeable so that I can carry out my obligations to the best of my abilities.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com