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All About Tressi Mehana Turkmany

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May 5, 2021

This month we are delighted to profile one of IFSA’s campus colleagues, Tressi Mehana Turkmany. Tressi serves as the Assistant Director of Study Abroad and Global Education at Scripps College in Claremont, California where she provides guidance and support to students in their study abroad journey. Tressi is also a proud Hawaiian who teaches hula to people of all ages, sharing the warm aloha spirit in every interaction.

Background and Hawaiian Roots

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on the windward side of the island Oʻahu in Kāneʻohe in Hawai’i. It is very different from what is shown on television. Although it has become a more popular area to film, the area where I grew up does not have the hustle and bustle of a city like Los Angeles. It has grown a lot since I’ve moved away, but some of my favorite places still exist!

As woman of strong Hawaiian identity how are you connecting with your culture of origin while in California?

I believe it is important to know my connections to all my identities to understand how I stay connected with my culture. I identify with all three of my identities – Hawaiian, Chinese, and Portuguese. When I am asked about my identity, I never pick one. However, I do identify most strongly with my Hawaiian and Chinese identity because of my family structure. My Tūtū (great-great grandmother) was an immigrant from Portugal and married my great-great grandfather who was full Hawaiian. She passed on mostly Hawaiian culture to my great-grandmother who I spent a lot of my time with growing up. I was very fortunate to have spent time with eight of my grandparents and keeping their stories and memories alive through reflection is mainly how I stay connected to who I am. Their birthdays and photos are sitting on a shelf in my home and when I go back to Hawai’i, we visit their memorials.

My Hawaiian name continues to be an important part of who I am. In the mainland, my husband and a handful of friends call me by my Hawaiian name, Mehana, instead of Tressi. Half of my family did not (and some still do not) use my English name and this was the same for many of my cousins even though most of us had English names. It wasn’t until high school that we realized we each had English names. My great-grandmother always said she didn’t understand why I even had an English name because no one uses it (although that was only half true). I answer to both names, but rumor has it that I answer to Mehana a lot faster than I do Tressi. This is still up for debate!

Other things I do to stay connected include keeping poi in my freezer, listening to my daily dose of Hawaiian music medicine by streaming Hawaiian105.com, and dancing hula. When I moved to the mainland in 1998, I wore a flower in my hair and keep them around the office. My students and colleagues had to learn certain Hawaiian words or phrases because I kept using them and had no desire to stop. I will not ever use the term “flip flop” (they’ll always be slippers to me!) and there is a sign on my front door that says, “Mahalo for removing your shoes.”

Work With Students

What has inspired your work in International Education?

There are two specific events that led me to my work in International Education. In 2015, I received a call from one of my colleagues on a Wednesday asking me if I had a passport. I answered him with a yes. His response was, “If we needed someone to visit a program with students this weekend, are you available to leave the country?” That one phone call changed everything. I accepted their offer and not knowing what to expect, I met my colleagues on campus two days later and we were on a flight to Italy. It was the first time I flew to Europe.

I learned so much about how the study abroad experience, regardless of length, can impact our students. I never had the chance to study abroad myself and working in student affairs for 12 years prior to my current position, I had no idea about how programs were structured. It was on this program visit that I realized how study abroad programs worked and how they were structured, and I was (and still am) impressed! I worked with study abroad students a lot during my time in student affairs, but only during pre-departure and when they returned. They would share snapshots of their experiences, but to be able to watch them experience their time abroad in person is something I would have never been able to gather from their photos and stories.

The experience also made me reflect on the type of experience international students had on our campus and how our work can impact their time with us. Working in residential life gave me the opportunity to connect with all students outside of the classroom. Because of this, I was able to work with international students in areas of mental health, housing, and accommodations in a U.S. context. It helped me see how some of our current policies did not necessarily fit the needs of international students. I was fortunate to have built relationships with my colleagues who worked with international students to discuss hard topics and then share those conversations with my student affairs colleagues. We were able to reexamine policies together to ensure that we did not create barriers to student success.

As I learn more about the world of international education, I continue to be inspired by the experiences of all our students and colleagues. Although the two experiences I shared impact the way I do my work, being able to help our students in different ways by knowing who they are and being able talk to them about the footprint they want to leave behind in any location they choose to study in is what inspires me the most. With that comes the challenges that also inspire me to do better work toward increasing access to students if they want to study abroad whether they choose an international or domestic experience.

How has your experience coming from Hawai’i to attend college in California influenced your student advising?

Like on any small campus, it always seems like “everyone is studying abroad” and while we do have a good percentage of students that do, there is still a percentage that do not and that is okay! I was one of the students that did not do a study abroad experience while in college. When I work with students that are unsure about studying abroad or feel pressured to go through the process, I remind them that they are living in Claremont and not in their home or the community they came from – they are abroad! I also point out that they don’t want to lock themselves out of opportunities by not applying but reiterate that it is completely acceptable if they decide not to go.

We also have students that want to study abroad but want to stay in the U.S. and then say, “I know that’s not really abroad.” I share with them that I am from Hawai’i, and California is a completely different place for me even though it is in the U.S. – it is not as green, people speak differently than I do, the food is different, the pace is different, the community is different, and that I am still on my 20-year study abroad experience. I love the look on their faces when I say that because I know at that moment, they realize they are doing something big by being a student on campus. Despite the challenges they may face on our small college campus, it is important to me that they realize pursuing a degree in a new place is a big deal and they should be proud of that.

What advice do you have for other study abroad advisors who are supporting Asian and Pacific Islander students considering a study abroad experience?

Each student will have their own degree of connection to their identities and intersectionality plays a huge role in the values that are important to them. Students may have other family responsibilities that we are not aware of, and it may not even be a financial issue. While it may be easy for some students to leave for six months or a year, it is not always that easy for those that have a unique family structure and expectations of their role in that structure will vary. For some students, they already broke the unspoken rule of moving away from home by going to college outside of their community and now they want to move to another country.

If they already attend a four-year institution that is not close to home, they may have the expectation from their family that they will be home after four years. Even if this is not the case, they still may have the same expectation of returning home and going right back to their family roles they were in before they left. We all know that going abroad, regardless of location, is a transformative experience so helping our students unpack this early could help prepare them for the returnee process. I do not believe this conversation will shy them away from the experience – it could empower them to bring their families in to partner in the process which is a win for everyone.

Students must weigh the pros and cons and while their perspective might not make sense to you, it makes sense to them and that is what matters. They need to be okay with the decision they make, so even if you don’t think they made the best decision, support them and accept their decision because it is not ours to make.

The past year of pandemic world has been really challenging, but you always have a positive attitude and outlook. What has helped keep you optimistic over the year?

Although this time has been really challenging for all of us, I honestly feel very lucky because I am still employed, I have medical insurance, my family is healthy, and although we are all Zoomed out, I’ve been able to stay connected with my family via video calls. My 87-year-old grandma uses a smartphone, and she loves texting back and forth with her uncle in Chicago. Knowing that technology has helped our kupuna (elders) find ways to “get out” during the pandemic makes me happy.

I also try to focus on good news—feel-good pet adoptions, families and individuals engaging in small acts of kindness for people they do not know—and I continue to be grateful for those who are doing work that keeps our communities safe and moving forward. I’m not just talking about first responders, although they have my highest level of gratitude; I’m talking about the individuals stocking the shelves in the grocery store, truck drivers bringing goods to our communities, our city workers who are working sanitation departments, the tradespeople who are keeping our buildings maintained, and IT folks/engineering companies who make sure our WIFI is working so we can continue staying connected. I am constantly reminded that we’re all in this together and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.