“I’ve always been into innovation and education, ’cause I’m a UH Lab School rat,” says University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa alumna Trina Nahm-Mijo (BA ’69, MEd ’71) with a laugh. “They were always testing things on us. I grew up used to teachers allowing us to speak our mind, talk about issues, challenge them.”
Now a professor of psychology at Hawaiʻi Community College, Nahm-Mijo has built that early academic spark into a fire. Daughter of an engineer and a social worker, both UH alumni, in a family of ministers, she’s been immersed in a social service mentality her whole life.
She’s also been immersed in dance, studying ballet and hula at the Richardson YWCA from age 7 through high school.
Nahm-Mijo first fused her interest in dance and psychology while doing doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley. She later established the expressive arts curriculum at Hawaiʻi Community College.
Expressive arts is a form of psychotherapy that helps people deal with personal issues through movement and other arts or, as Nahm-Mijo puts it, “spiritual and physical movement in convergence.”
Web extra: Nahm-Mijo on the emerging discipline of expressive arts therapy and her dance-based social activism work. Watch the video.
Intertwining activism and dance, she’s choreographed pieces about the challenges facing people with disabilities and the situation of former wartime sex slaves.
A recent Fulbright Scholarship award that will take Nahm-Mijo to Estonia in 2011 has only turned up the heat on her triple crown of passions—culture and the arts, women’s studies and human services.
During the early 1970s, Nahm-Mijo met professional dancer Earnest T. Morgan while doing doctoral work at Berkeley. Morgan, originally from Waipahu, Hawaiʻi, got a grant and enlisted Nahm-Mijo to help him promote modern dance in Hawaiʻi.
“We both wanted to go home and start a company that fused ethnic roots into contemporary dance,” she recalls. “At that time, modern dance was very cerebral and abstract, and we both had a desire to put the heart back into modern dance.” Their troupe, Dance ʻO Hawaiʻi toured Hawaiʻi, the South Pacific and Asia. They also did hundreds of outreach performances, classes and workshops.
Eventually Morgan left to found the Honolulu City Ballet, but Nahm-Mijo stayed in Hilo to teach psychology.
She also helped start dance programs at the college and at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo—both still going strong. She established a human services certificate and a women’s studies program and helped create a women’s center, now administratively part of UH Hilo.
“I like to start things and see them thrive,” says Nahm-Mijo. By her count, she’s been involved with starting some 20 programs and organizations that are still active today. (That doesn’t include her 34-year marriage to fellow faculty member Jerry Nahm-Mijo, with whom she has two grown sons, Renge and Shayne.)
Among Nahm-Mijo’s more recent projects is directing the Middle College Arts Program at the Keaʻau Youth Business Center. The award-winning program allows at-risk high school seniors to earn dual high school and college credit. It boasted a 100-percent graduation rate for participants by its third year and received the UH Community Colleges’ 2008 Wo Community Building Award.
Students learn digital media, culinary arts and computer skills in facilities that include a recording studio described as “probably the best on the Big Island,” a kitchen on wheels and a multi-media lab.
“A program’s not good unless it can survive by itself,” says Nahm-Mijo. “I’ve been blessed to find a lot of good people. It’s been exciting to see students who were freshmen at Hawaiʻi Community College work all the way through their master’s, becoming working colleagues and give back to their communities.”
The physical demands of teaching dance motivated Nahm-Mijo to pass the torch onto others, but she continues to choreograph new works with an activist agenda. She expects to carry this through in Estonia.
“I see this experience as a continuation of what I started earlier in my career. I’m hoping to open their country and culture to the arts as a healing force to improve peoples’ lives.”