Ashley Juan felt nervous energy pulse through her veins as she took the stage at the Merrie Monarch Hula competition in Hilo, Hawaii in April 2016. But when the music began, Juan felt transported back to her home island of Maui. Hula uses movement and dance to tell a story, and through her gestures, Juan told stories of the people and places on Maui that she knows and loves.
“It was a lot of pressure. But hula is all about telling a story, so when the music hits, you just think about that story,” says Juan, a senior majoring in pre-pharmacy who has been dancing since the age of four.
Juan’s experience at the Merrie Monarch Festival — which includes one of the biggest hula competitions in the world — was the culmination of hundreds of hours of practice and a careful balancing act of her time, studies and activities at Oregon State.
“Hula is one of my biggest passions,” Juan says. “But I shied away from it when I started college. Being away from home, it was hard to practice, and there aren’t any hula groups around here.”
At the end of her junior year at Oregon State, Juan’s former dance group in Hawaii invited her to rejoin them to prepare for the competition. Despite the distance and the time commitment she knew it would require, she accepted.
Juan also maintained all of her other campus commitments while preparing for the competition. She is president of the Hawaii Club, a peer facilitator at the Asian and Pacific Cultural Center, vice president of the Pre-Pharmacy Society and a representative for the Associated Students of Oregon State University (ASOSU).
Juan says her community of friends, faculty and advisors were all incredibly supportive of her choice to participate in the competition.
“Everyone in the Pacific Islander community knew I was working toward the competition, and they all asked me how I was doing and if I felt ready,” she says. “That’s the kind of community we have here at Oregon State. It’s very supportive.”
Juan was able to fit in about an hour of practice per day, and she traveled to Maui over school breaks and even some weekends to practice with her group. She says the competition was an experience she will always remember.
As soon as Juan returned to Corvallis, she jumped in to planning the Asian and Pacific Cultural Center’s Heritage Month in May. Juan performed a hula dance at the Hawaii Club’s annual luau and also planned an Asian and Pacific Islander Queer event, which consisted of a panel of diverse voices speaking about their experiences.
Juan says celebrating Asian and Pacific heritage is important, because many Hawaii students feel culture shocked coming to Oregon State. Through her four years, she’s worked to support her fellow Hawaii students and says she’s seen their population grow dramatically. Hawaii ranks third for the number of out-of-state students at Oregon State, with 358 enrolled last fall.
“I’m so glad I ended up in such a supportive environment here at Oregon State,” Juan says. “We’re really working to make sure we’re all successful and that we’re making an inclusive environment for all students.”