As a teenager and Kalani High School student, Niki Shishido recalls being in her “own little East Honolulu bubble,” far removed from the world across the sea.
A California Lutheran University professor would burst that bubble, propelling her physically and mentally across the ocean into a career aimed at opening the world to hundreds of Hawaii high school students much like herself at that age.
Shishido is executive director of the Pacific & Asian Affairs Council, which over its 65-year history has reached 92,737 high school students, 107,300 college students, 85,400 community members and 1,384 international visitors with a variety of programs.
Its mission: To develop global competencies and 21st century skills in Hawaii’s youth through hands-on, interactive learning; to generate people-to-people ties across nations; and to spark discussion of timely global issues that affect Hawaii.
The nonprofit’s five full-time employees operate out of leased space at the East-West Center’s John A. Burns Hall. Funding for its $650,000 annual budget comes primarily from a dozen foundations and organizations and a grant from the City & County of Honolulu. A diverse 32-member board of directors offers support.
Like many local nonprofits, PAAC evolved from an older organization with a different name. Back in 1925, a group of men and women working to improve relations among Pacific Rim nations began a series of biennial conferences, calling itself the Institute of Pacific Relations.
The institute flourished and even survived China-Japan tensions and World War II, only to be targeted by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunism crusade in which he accused the IPR, unfairly, of promoting a communist government in China. Funding dried up and the IPR dissolved in 1961. A few years later, the Hawaii chapter reorganized as the Pacific & Asian Affairs Council.
Like other Hawaii nonprofits, PAAC has changed with the times, redirecting its mission to focus on high school students and participation in an international visitor leadership program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. It no longer works with college students, and has trimmed its number of community forums.
“It’s the core of what we do,” Shishido says of the high school program, which consists of study tours abroad, global vision summits, global leadership programs, after-school classes, PAAC clubs, and a statewide trivia bowl called WorldQuest in which more than 200 students compete in teams of four for an opportunity to represent Hawaii in Washington, D.C.
“We like to say we’re the only one offering global programs to high school students across the state,” she told me.
For the past 15 years, PAAC has arranged study tours and financial assistance for students to visit China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Other tours focus on specific themes such as food security and sustainability in Bali, grassroots community action in the Philippines, Polynesian cultural exchange in Tahiti, and service learning through teaching in Vietnam.
For many of the students, the study tours are their first opportunity to venture outside Hawaii.
“We want our students to better understand issues that may affect their careers,” Shishido says.
Shishido understands first-hand the impact that study-abroad programs can have on a young person. A study abroad program in Hong Kong that Cal Lutheran professor Dr. Edward Tseng turned her onto changed her career plans, and her major from sociology to international studies. Upon graduation, she moved to China to teach English as a second language and spent more than eight years in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. She became fluent in Mandarin and, while on the staff of the Beijing office of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, promoted Hawaii’s educational opportunities to Chinese students.
Returning to Hawaii, she earned an MBA from the University of Hawaii, joined PAAC in 2013, and became its executive director in 2016.
I asked Shishido how PAAC measures success. “It’s something we’re trying to clarify,” she says, citing self assessments and evaluations of each program. While the numbers are impressive, she wants to learn more about her alumni and how their PAAC experiences affected their career choices.
I also asked her what advice she has for Hawaii high school students who perhaps are living in a bubble as she did as a teenager.
“I tell them that to be competitive you have to understand what’s going on around us, to look outside,” she said. “If you do that, the world can be your playground.”
Contact PAAC Executive Director Niki Shishido at firstname.lastname@example.org.