Kēhaulani Vaughn (Kanaka Maoli) joined the University of Utah in 2018 as an assistant professor of Pacific Island Education in the Department of Education, Culture, and Society and the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative. She also serves as the faculty advisor to the Pasifika Bridge Program—a higher education bridge program between the local Pacific Islander community and the U, as part of the Mellon Foundation’s grant to Transform.

As a scholar-practitioner, Dr. Vaughn’s teaching and research interests are in Pacific Island Studies, Indigenous epistemologies, higher education, and decolonial practices and pedagogies. Her book manuscript, Trans Indigeneity: The Politics of California Indian and Native Hawaiian Relations, is about the trans-Indigenous recognitions between Native Hawaiians living in the U.S. and California Indian tribes. An interdisciplinary ethnographic project, Trans Indigeneity utilizes a Native feminist praxis to forge new methodological, theoretical, and political directions for Indigenous recognition-based politics. Her recent work, “Sovereignty Embodiment: Native Hawaiians and Expression of Diasporic Kuleana was published in Hūlili Journal (Fall 2019), a leading journal in the field of Hawaiian Studies.

Prior to joining the U, in addition to maintaining her research agenda, Dr. Vaughn was a visiting professor and Acting Associate Dean and Director of the Asian American Resource Center (ARRC) at Pomona College. At Pomona, she helped to establish the Saturday Tongan Education Program (STEP) – a tutoring and mentoring program that empowers Pacific Islander youth and their families that centers culturally relevant education. She is also one of the founders and current board members for Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), where much of her work focuses on culturally relevant leadership development that addresses the retention and persistence of Pacific Islander college students.

Dr. Vaughn’s direct professional experience in higher educational access, specifically for Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities, has fostered a perfect match with Transform as she guides and shapes the Pasifika Bridge program and curriculum. Her personal commitment, however, is a major part of what fuels her to expand and create beyond the program.

“Since I’m one of the few tenure track faculty members who is Pacific Islander and the only one identified that does work specially on Pacific Islander education in the continental U.S., I have to ask myself: ‘What is my kuleana—my responsibility to build and sustain pipelines to higher education, especially as I teach and mentor Pacific Islander scholars, thinkers, creators and artists? What transformation can education provide when it challenges understandings of our people being monolithic, and as the subjects of research? How do I create and advocate for space for us to be the researchers and teachers?”

Indeed, Moana Uluave-Hafoka, Pacific Islands Studies Initiative Bridge Program Director, adds that “Dr. Vaghn has internalized her kuleana, or responsibility, so much so that everyday folks can feel her genuine care for them. They understand that her scholarship is meant to support their best selves, and they respond to this with trust. Inevitably, this contributes to the level of success of the program for our participants.”

In the spring of 2020, Dr. Vaughn was awarded a 1U4U SVP of Academic Affairs Innovation Funding for her work to build a graduate student pipeline for Pacific Island students. This work seeks to provide pipeline between undergraduate students and into graduate education.

Most recently, Dr. Vaughn, won the prestigious Ford Foundation 2020 Postdoctoral Fellowship. The Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship is one of the oldest, most competitive, and highly respected programs that helps launch the careers of scholars from diverse disciplines. This award is not only a recognition of the work she’s done so far, but also an acknowledgement of the promise that Dr. Vaughn shows for future achievement as a scholar, researcher, and teacher in an institution of higher education.

In the words of Dean Kathryn Stockton, “simply, Dr. Vaughn is the transformative scholar we imagined she would be.  Smart, devoted, communal to her core, Kēhau is delivering compelling research and indispensable leadership for a history-making grant at the U.”

Indeed, her work and scholarship embody the type of interdisciplinarity Transform is all about!