A tall green palm tree stands over a sign bordered by colorful native flowers. In the sign’s far left corner are four letters: S-D-S-U.
The letters may be small, but they represent a major shift taking place on the South Pacific island of Palau.
More than 7,000 miles from San Diego, the Republic of Palau has a population of less than 25,000 — smaller than the student body of San Diego State.
“For a country as small as Palau,
educating hundreds is huge."
While the country has a near-perfect high school graduation rate, few inhabitants pursue higher education, and those who do generally leave Palau forever.
The island’s K-12 teachers are mostly high school graduates. At Palau Community College — the only institution of higher education on the island — associate degrees are the norm among instructors.
San Diego State is changing that. For the past decade, SDSU has partnered with the community college to offer bachelor’s degrees through the SDSU Interwork Institute.
More than 200 local teachers and education administrators have graduated from the program since 1998. Another 30 began coursework this summer.
“For a country as small as Palau, educating hundreds is huge,” said Caren Sax, director of the Interwork Institute. “We have a real presence on the island; SDSU bumper stickers are everywhere.”
With so many islanders pursuing higher education, government officials are pushing for more credentialed teachers. SDSU has already graduated three cohorts of master’s degree students.
“The Palauan people are thirsty for knowledge and dedicated to their studies,” Sax said. “They are truly committed to improving education and opportunity.”
The commitment goes both ways. Sylvia Garcia Navarette, a newly-minted Ed.D., worked with K-12 teachers in Palau on pedagogical techniques for English language learners.
“True leadership,” she said, “is about what we are really doing to help others.”