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Verto students take it one step at a time as they hike to find epic views.

This week’s blog is written by student Mariana Steiner in Hawaii. She shares about connecting to the land and learning about herself through challenges like hiking, swimming with sharks, and more. 

*** This is an example of a student’s experience from Spring 2021. Specific programming and activities are subject to change semester by semester.


The lava rocks crunched under our hiking boots as the heat of the sun radiated off of them. We passed the half-way point of the Captain Cook hike as we headed down to our destination: a beautiful, refreshing oasis on the shoreline of cliffs and solidified lava flow where Captain Cook was defeated by Native Hawaiians. Not only was this destination a historic landmark, but the cool ocean water that was waiting for us at the end of this strenuous hike was enough motivation to push forward.

With enough breaks to catch the periodic breeze that would come through and a lot of group motivation, we arrived at the bottom of the mountain and quickly found a shaded area to drop all our gear and head straight to the water, ready for the ‘Āina (the Land) to reward us for our hard work.

Hard work pays off! The views of the ocean were even better from the top.

Jumping into the crystal blue water and being immediately surrounded by schools of yellow tang was just what we needed. As we swam deeper into the Pacific Ocean, I began to feel a sense of peace that I had never felt before.

After a week of grounding myself through farming at ‘Āina of Kaulana nā pua and connecting with the energy that radiated off of the land, my peers and myself, I have been learning how to embrace all of my surroundings. So when I turned my head in the water and found myself facing a White Tip shark swimming my way, I embraced the moment, instead of panicking how I normally would have. It was just me and this lone creature, swimming along the orange and purple coral, and taking in our surroundings.

Soon enough, my unfamiliar presence scared the gray and white shark into a cove underneath the reef where I couldn’t follow him anymore. I searched the open water for others that might be trailing behind but all I saw was the deep, dark sea underneath me. I took a second to wander what else might be hidden in these depths of unexplored water.

One of the white tip sharks Mariana ran into while in Hawaii. What would you have done?!

This surreal and spontaneous experience of swimming with my first wild shark is something that I never even dreamed of. To be honest, I used to fear this exact situation. However, something had changed within me during this encounter that made me react the way I did. If this situation had presented itself a year ago, I would have probably panicked and assumed I was facing my death.

But over my time here in Hawaii, I have come to find a deeper appreciation for the ‘Āina and all of the creatures that call it home. Through learning about Hawaiian culture and listening to Native narratives, I have and am actively learning the power that the land holds and how respecting and appreciating it comes with rewards, this experience being a prime example.

Because of this, I have grown in my connection with nature, which has brought me a sense of inner peace. I absorb the energy that radiates from every wave, breeze, leaf, etc. and then reciprocate it back to my surroundings through respect and care. Whether it be torrential downpour in Hilo, clear blue skies in Kona or swimming with a majestic shark in open waters, I take a moment to capture the energy of my environment and return it with calm and positive intentions.

Verto students celebrate the amazing feeling of tapping into your senses and getting in touch with nature.

As I spend more time learning about Hawaiian culture and values, I become more passionate about carrying the values of aloha (love), kuleana (respect) and malama (care) wherever I go, even after I leave Hawaii. I believe that if it hadn’t been for our hard work, determination and appreciation during the exhausting hike, the ‘Āina would not have rewarded us with such beauty at the end of the journey.