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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 18, 2010

Furlough sit-in lifts mother's profile

By Lee Cataluna

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Marguerite Higa, left, delivers student testimony letters to Jordann Ares, policy analyst for Gov. Linda Lingle.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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If you Google "Marguerite Higa," you get close to 3,500 hits from sites such as CNBC, MSNBC, the New York Times, even the BBC.

During the eight-day sit-in at Gov. Linda Lingle's office, Higa often served as spokeswoman for the loosely organized group Save Our Schools. She did television interviews and was quoted in print articles, including Associated Press stories that were picked up around the country. Four people were arrested for trespassing during the protest. Higa was the only mom.

"My mother called me and yelled at me," Higa said. "But for me, it was 'whatever it takes to end furlough Fridays.' "

She hadn't done anything like this before, and had never been arrested until Wednesday. There was a time in college when she joined a group of students who stood in protest outside a regents' meeting, but she doesn't even remember what they were protesting.

The furlough Fridays pushed her into new territory. She and the other protesters didn't know one another before this school year, but there they were, sleeping in the reception area outside the governor's office, sharing food, crafting action plans, united under a common mission.

"We just couldn't believe furlough Fridays would be allowed to happen. We kept expecting it to be canceled," she said. "When the village is starving, you don't take food away from the baby. But here they're saying they don't have money for school."

The protesters thought Lingle would meet with them, if not that first day, then probably the second, but the sit-in lasted a week. Higa spent four nights in the governor's office area. Her daughter spent the first night with her.

Higa, 42, is a biology professor at the University of Hawai'i who teaches two classes and runs a lab where she conducts research on her area of study, evolutionary physiology.

She was born in Korea, the middle of three children. Her father was an American Army officer from New Hampshire who graduated from West Point. Her mother is a Korean national.

The family moved to Hawai'i in 1974 when her father was offered a job at Fort Shafter. She graduated third in her class at Mililani High in 1985 and went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. She got her Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. She and her husband, Jeffrey, also a Mililani grad, came home three years ago when she accepted the position at UH-Mānoa.

When furlough Fridays kicked in, Higa began volunteering to tutor at Noelani Elementary where her daughter Raine is in school. Higa helps kids who are falling behind because of the days off.

"There's no time for any remedial work, and the kids are so stressed out because they know they can't keep up," she said.

On the day she was arrested, she knew what was coming.

"I already had two citations, and I knew the governor's office wouldn't back off and what they said they were going to do." She felt bad for the UH students who had been arrested earlier in the week. She wasn't happy to be arrested, but she was willing.

She said the handcuffs were surprisingly heavy. The sheriff held on to her so she wouldn't trip and fall forward with her hands behind her back.

In the van on the way to Hālawa Correctional Facility, the sheriffs asked what kind of music she and fellow protester Teresa Kessenich-Chase would like on the radio.

"The sheriffs were very kind," Higa said. "They told us several times they took no pleasure in doing this, but that it was their jobs."

The next day, Higa told her daughter she had been arrested. Her daughter thought it was cool.

"Our kids, and really all of us involved in the sit-in, learned a lot about how government works and how to be a part of the process," Higa said. "And for the kids, all of the leaders of our society aren't so intimidating anymore. Our Hawai'i leaders are very accessible wait, I should qualify that ALMOST all of the leaders are accessible."