Student Spotlight: actress, singer and teacher Justine Goggin ’18

by Kaina Chen | 6/23/16 5:00pm

Justine Goggin ’18 spent her off-term in the Marshall Islands and performed in a bilingual production of “The King and I.”

When most people think about the Pacific, romantic images of couples lounging on picturesque beaches come to mind. After all, it’s paradise, right?

It’s hard, however, to imagine spending extended amounts of time in such an area; not many students — let alone adults — would choose to live in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an island country near the equator used as the location for the United States’ atomic bomb testing from 1946 to 1958. Yet, that is exactly what Justine Goggin ’18 did during her sophomore winter term.

Goggin, a theater and English double major, escaped the bitter weather in Hanover and spent three months in the Marshall Islands teaching music and creating a bilingual production of the Broadway musical “The King and I” (1951) with local students.

She completed her work through Youth Bridge Global, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing youth theater productions in developing countries, which Andrew Garrod, an education professor emeritus, co-founded in 2006.

For Goggin, a typical day in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, involved teaching choir classes at a local Catholic school in the morning and rehearsing for the major production in the afternoon with about 50 other people. Her students, she said ranged in age from 4 to 24.

“I thought it was so much fun to be able to teach little kids because they are so creative,” Goggin said. “It was also really fun with the older kids. With them, since we were closer in age, we got to develop friendships.”

Over time, these friendships, she said, were key to overcoming obstacles the cast faced during rehearsals.

When she was not working, Goggin was able to immerse herself into the Marshallese culture and the area’s laid-back vibe. At some community gatherings, students and other members brought their ukuleles and played a few tunes while people sang in harmony, she noted. At times, people provided fresh coconuts for refreshments.

“Everywhere I would walk there would be so much music,” Goggin said.

Goggin fondly remembers the happy students, warm gatherings and picture-perfect beaches.

“It felt like a little adventure because it was so different from home,” Goggin said.

Her term abroad, however, also provided a real and often sobering look into the lives of people living in poverty. Goggin said some students would show up to rehearsals already fed while others used rehearsals as both practice time and mealtime. She also noted the high level of littering due to the people not having proper places to dispose of their trash. Students who should have been in school did not attend one, and graduating from high school was not necessarily guaranteed.

“Their everyday living was something new for me, and seeing that opened up my mind,” she said. “It changed the way I think about the world.”

Putting together the production had its challenges as well, with one in particular being the language barrier. The students delivered their dialogue in Marshallese and sang in English, while Goggin delivered her lines in English.

“I had to learn my lines really well,” Goggin said. “During one of the dramatic and serious scenes, after I had said my lines, the audience started laughing. It wasn’t until I went off stage that I realized I had skipped a line.”

Another challenge Goggin noted was the reactions that many students had with the themes of the musical.

“The King and I,” composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, is based on Margaret Landon’s novel “Anna and the King of Siam” (1944). The novel is about Anna, a teacher from Britain the King of Siam hires to educate his children and his country about modern ways. The musical speaks about colonization and carries a theme of gender equality — two elements that are very relevant to the Marshallese students putting on the play.

“The students experienced [these themes] on a daily basis,” Goggin said. “We got to talk about their thoughts after the play, and what they felt their relationship was to those themes.”

For some, they could still be feeling the effects of colonization during the late 19th century. Between 1874 to 1978, Spain, Germany, Japan and the United States occupied the Marshall Islands at one point during that period before the island nation’s local government achieved full sovereignty in 1986 and established itself as a presidential republic in free association with America.

Goggin noted that the group of girls she spoke to after the show agreed with the message of gender equality. Half of the boys also agreed, but the other half, Goggin said, completely disagreed. Many of the students’ perspectives mirrored the systems they have in place in the Marshall Islands. The women have land rights, but the men have the power over the land. Goggin challenged the students to think further about their opinions.

“To hear them sit and share their opinions and experiences was challenging,” she said.

While such topics are typically sensitive, Garrod praised Goggin’s methods.

“She has a natural way of interacting with the young people of the island that is respectful, professional and empowering,” he said.

Alisa White ’17, a fellow member of the co-ed a cappella group the Dartmouth Dodecaphonics, said Goggin possesses a rare and wonderful talent for taking advice and direction and being able to provide it for others as well.

As for the performances, Goggin said the community appeared to focus heavily on the production, which attracted large crowds. She attributed this to the novelty of theater as an art form in the Marshall Islands.

Each night, the show attracted around 900 audience members. The population of the islands is 53,158. Goggin noted that Hilda Heine, the president of the Marshall Islands, took a front row seat on the opening day.

“It was a good quality show, but it wasn’t professional so having a huge audience was great,” she said.

Along with the novelty of the production came a sense of hope for the entire community, Goggin noted. The production showed the community, many of whom were not aware beforehand, of the students’ ability to produce a high caliber show.

Since returning to the College, Goggin has reimmersed herself into life in the northeast and her various arts involvements. She currently sings in the Dartmouth College Glee Club and the Dodecaphonics and performs in the theater department’s termly productions.

However, Goggin’s time spent in the Marshall Islands is undoubtedly one she will never forget. While she felt that she helped teach her students valuable skills such as goal-setting and working consistently, Goggin said she learned so much more from them through their various interactions. Perhaps that is the greatest gift any teacher can receive — knowledge that she impacted the lives of her students and that she was also similarly affected in a positive way.

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