It was at Mānoa Experience 2023, the April 1 campus-wide open house that draws thousands of prospective students to the University of Hawaiʻi flagship campus, that greeter Tara H. Sutton learned the news. She is the College of Social Sciences’ 2023 Outstanding Graduating Senior (OGS), an annual award that exemplifies the core values of scholarship, leadership and service. On being told that she had won, Sutton covered her face and started crying. “It was overwhelming,” said the 46-year-old Honolulu resident. “This award means everything to me, because it honors the ways my family encourages me to dream big, then makes room for me to pursue those dreams.”
Sutton will graduate with a 3.9 GPA and a long list of accomplishments. Among them, she is vice president of Pi Gamma Mu, the CSS honor society; a CSS Student Ambassador; service chair for the Speech Communication Society; and volunteer coordinator and former president of the Anthropology Undergraduate Student Association. In April, she won the Joseph Fielding Smith Memorial Award for outstanding Communicology undergraduate; in October 2022, she was the only student panelist at the UH Innovation Conference on Water Resilience in Hawaiʻi.
On Saturday, May 13, Sutton will don cap and gown to walk at UH Mānoa’s Spring 2023 Commencement. She will accept her bachelor’s diploma in Communicology, Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, and begin her quest for a master’s degree in Geography and Environment. “These past four years have been an incredible journey,” she said. “I hit the books in my forties after living a full life that included single parenthood in Alaska, and decades of rich work experiences at places ranging from a bakery to mortgage processing company to medium security prison. Every college credit was so precious to me, so this OGS award is something I am incredibly proud of.”
Here is Sutton’s story, in her own words.
My first husband of 13 years didn’t let me go to college. It was always “his turn” to attend school, never mine. I was never seen as equal with respect to education or career . . . I met my second husband in Alaska – we’ve been married for four years – and when we moved to Oʻahu in 2019 with my daughter and son, I started classes at UH Mānoa two weeks later.
Going to school in Hawaiʻi allowed me to evaluate my positionality as a settler in an Indigenous space. This was not easy, as I challenged myself to reevaluate much of what I had learned through my childhood education in mainstream public schools on the continental U.S., with social norms that I grew to accept in the predominantly white cities where I lived.
I originally declared Communicology as my major, which taught me theories of intergroup and intercultural communication as well as persuasion, specifically, persuasive message construction for social justice contexts. But my general education electives, like Linguistics 102 and Religion 150, awakened a passion to learn about peoples, cultures and languages of the world. It prompted me to add Anthropology as a second major, which led to training in ethnographic fieldwork and qualitative research. I also sought out courses in Ethnic Studies, my third major, which offered transformational learning experiences with a solid background in social justice and community engagement.
So many people have helped and encouraged me. For example, through experiences at the North Shore Field School and Nā Koʻokoʻo: Hawaiian Leadership Program, I helped create a short public service documentary video on the Red Hill water crisis. This led me to employment with the Center for Oral History as an archival assistant working with Director Davianna McGregor. So when Drs. Aurora Kagawa-Viviani and Leah Bremer at CSS asked Kumu Davi to suggest a student researcher to assist the UH Red Hill Task Force with a project on Red Hill water contamination – using semi-structured interviews to understand the social outcomes of the jet fuel spill – I was recommended.
My research thesis will focus on three things: instances when the U.S. Department of Defense polluted the environment, identification of patterns in their response tactics, and the resulting relational impacts on host communities.
Having to wait to go to college was a bummer, but the silver lining is two of my kids are college students, too. Dinner conversations can get very interesting at our house! This has been so exciting, especially for me. I waited a long time for “my turn” to go to college. My husband and kids have shown me the kind of love that says, “We are all in this together.” Because of their support, I’m earning my bachelor’s degree, receiving this award and transitioning to graduate school, which is incredibly humbling. I’m looking forward to my mom, husband and kids saying they’re proud of me.