As a result of Micronesia’s colonial history, this diverse group faces a number of unique challenges which educators should be aware of.

History and Political Status

Micronesia is a geographic area in the western Pacific that is larger than the Continental United States. The land mass of the islands of the five Micronesian nations, if consolidated, would fit inside Rhode Island. Although the region is lumped together as one, people are from multiple cultures and speak multiple languages that are distinctly different from one another. Most people come from a lifestyle of sustainability; families have been fishing and farming for generations. The islands have been colonized by Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States over the past 100 years, with some influences from each colonizing nation. The most recent political relationships with the United States started after World War II with the Trust Territories under the direction of the United Nations. By the 1980s, all jurisdictions in the Pacific had developed political status either as an independent nation (Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia) a territory of the US (Guam, American Samoa), or a Commonwealth of the US (Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands) (Ridgell, 1995).

In the mid 1980s, Compacts of Free Association (COFA) were created with three nations, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM, including its four states, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Yap and Kosrae), the Republic of Palau, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Under these agreements, people from COFA nations can travel freely to the US and work or attend school without the need for visas. They use American money, and their people are eligible for many grants from the U.S. government (Ratliffe, 2010).

The two largest groups from COFA nations in Hawaii are the Marshallese from the RMI and the Chuukese from the FSM. There are approximately 17,000 – 19,000 people from the islands of Micronesia in Hawaii, and about 50,000 on the continental US. Hawaii schools have approximately 7,000 – 8,000 students from the various regions of Micronesia (Ratliffe, 2010).

Migrants From the Region

The Chuukese in Hawaii are from the largest state of the FSM, and speak a variety of languages including Chuukese, Northern Island languages, Hall Island language, and Mortlockese, depending on where they are from in this large state of hundreds of islands. Even within the lagoon area of Chuuk, there are different dialects, and people may or may not understand each other. Chuuk has a history of conflict and aggression because it has politically unified people who were at odds with each other prior to the formation of the state and of the FSM. Although western influences continue to increase, many in the villages still live sustainable lives of fishing and farming (Ridgell, 1995).

The Marshallese in Hawaii are primarily from Majuro, the capital, and Ebeye, two of the 26 island atolls and high (volcanic) islands that form two lines, north to south, in the RMI. They all speak the Marshallese language. They have an organized chief system of local governance, and people travel between islands by boat and small plane. A large U.S. military missile base is still operating on the Kwajalein atoll, displacing the inhabitants to Ebeye, a small island in the atoll (Ridgell, 1995). Ebeye draws relatives of the initial inhabitants and others who believe that there are jobs on Kwajalein, swelling the population to 10,000 people on the small island. There is not enough water to support the inhabitants, so many people travel to Kwajalein each day to get water for drinking and bathing .

Two island atolls in the RMI were bombed repeatedly by powerful nuclear weapons after World War II, Bikini and Enewetak. Nuclear fallout from the 67 bombs that were detonated in the air and on land blew over several other islands causing radiation sickness, high incidence of thyroid and other cancers, and other health problems. The U.S. Government is paying some descendants of the original inhabitants fees for their loss of land and health. Hundreds of people are affected. Migrants from the RMI may or may not be from impacted regions (Ridgell, 1995).

Culture and Language

People from these island groups share some aspects of their cultures that are built upon clear gender expectations, sustainable living on small islands, and identities that are rooted in one’s place in the family, village, and clan. Most cultures are matrilineal with land passing through the women. People have skills that include fishing, farming, sailing, navigating, weaving, carving figurines, building using local traditions, carving canoes. Women generally care for the home and children, while men fish, farm and build. They have a strong priority for caring and connectedness with each other. The church is very important in village life. Most islanders are either Catholic or Protestant depending on which missionaries arrived first, but some other religions, such as Bahai and Latter Day Saints, are also making inroads (Ratliffe, 2011).

The encroachment of Western ways of life including electricity and convenient foods such as rice and canned meats, has highlighted the innate poverty and burgeoning population. Increasing health care problems related to the inadequate western diet and rising sea levels from global warming are pushing people to migrate and form communities in Guam, Hawaii, and in many states on the U.S. continent. They move to obtain employment, education for their children, health care and hope for the future (Ratliffe, 2011).

Many migrants from the region are poor, have poor health, low English language skills, and poor preparation for the job market in the US. They are unfamiliar with the U.S. school system and adults must work long hours at unskilled jobs to make ends meet. Although school is compulsory in all of the island nations, it is not enforced generally, and parents are often surprised when encountering the expectations of the U.S. education system (Ratliffe, 2011).

How to Work Effectively with Micronesian families

It is important that educators make families feel welcome in school, avail themselves of translators and interpreters for families who are not comfortable with English, and demonstrate interest in the children and their families. Since many people from Micronesia prefer to avoid conflict, they may respond positively to requests or yes/no questions assessing their understanding, and then not follow through. School personnel should ask follow-up questions to assess family members’ understanding of information and their true intentions regarding their proposed actions.

Children need to feel cared for in school, and will not be ready to learn if they feel separate, discriminated against, or not able to relate to their teachers. Educators should indicate interest in them by asking questions about their families and where they come from, being warm and welcoming, and offering assistance as needed. Warm relationships with students and their families can facilitate mutual positive regard and a willingness to learn (Ratliffe, 2011). 

Educational History

Although many Micronesian children have exposure to English before coming to the US, they may still display significant difficulties with language. This is due in part to the fact that in most of the Freely Associated States (FAS), the academic language proficiency of children’s native language is often ignored, a practice which has left many children proficient in neither English or their native language.

In addition to these linguistic problems, immigrants from the FAS, like other immigrant families, often experience difficulties with the inexplicit expectations of the school system. For instance, in most of the FAS, school attendance is not emphasized, while in Hawai`i and the U.S., attendance is a serious issue that is tied to budgetary actions. In addition, “borrowing” from each other is a common practice of the community, in the US and its public schools, students are expected to work independently and this “borrowing” may be misinterpreted by school staff as a deficiency on the part of the students and unacceptable behavior. Finally, children in the FAS are taught to be quiet in the presence of an adult, which is an attitude that does not match the participant structures of mainstream US classrooms (Philips, 1972).

As newcomers to Hawai`i, children tend to rely exclusively on their parents (Li, 1999). It is important for parents of ELL students find to remember that having a positive attitude toward both the native and the new languages and cultures and being supportive in their interactions with their children at home is key in addressing children’s bilingual education and identity development.


Li. (1999).

Philips. (1972).

Ratliffe, K. T. (2010). Family obligations in Micronesian cultures: Implications for educators. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(6), 671-690. doi:10.1080/09518390903468339

Ratliffe, K. T. (2011). Micronesian voices: Culture and school conflict. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 14(2), 233-252. doi:10.1080/13613324.2010.519971

Ridgell, R. (1995). Pacific nations and territories: The islands of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia (3rd Ed., Revised). Honolulu, HI: Bess Press.

Consider listening to the Offshore podcast, which is written and produced by Honolulu Civil Beat. https://www.offshorepodcast.org Season 3 focuses on the story of London Lewis, a 25-year-old Marshallese man who was adopted as an infant from the Marshall Islands when international adoptions started to boom.