Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hoping to Inspire

(Last October, my daughter's MESA club advisor asked me to be the guest speaker for the end of the year MESA banquet.  This is what I came up with in one night and with very little sleep.  LOL!)

In the Pacific Islands, education is not a new concept. Before there was the idea of formal education with buildings, classrooms, diplomas, and degrees, there were masters. When someone in the islands was educated, it was within a specific field of study where you were an apprentice for many years until you earned your mastery level. For example, a navigator would have to prove his skills by heading a voyage across the sea using only the stars and ocean currents to determine his destination. If he successfully completed the voyage, he would be deemed a master. Or in Hawaii, there were healers and there were bone setters. If someone broke a bone, these were the people who reset them. For their final exam and to earn mastery level, they would have to break one of their children’s bones and reset it. If it reset properly, they would become master bone setters. With this new concept of formalized education, we have changed our WAY of learning, but we haven’t changed the idea LEARNING ITSELF.

In my family, excellence in education was always a must. Expectations were set high and nothing less was tolerated. (This is also true in my own household today.) So going to college after high school was never a question. It was a statement. “What are you going to do after high school?” I’m going to college. By the time I finished high school, my mom had completed her Bachelor’s degree in elementary education and my dad had a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University. So I was not considered a first generation college student. But I certainly felt like one. Growing up on a small island in the South Pacific, only visiting “the states” nine times in my 18 years of life, and being exposed to textbooks that were outdated by 20 years, I was not prepared for life in the United States let alone college. Add to that a lack of direction, I was confused all around. I never really knew what I wanted to major in. I went to high school with people who wanted to be a lawyer, another who wanted to go into business, and still others who were set on being a teacher. Me? I wanted to go into interior design. Or something in design. Or so I thought.

When I began my college career in California, not only was I far away from home, but I was in this fast paced, urban area, in which I felt completely overwhelmed. I was told by family and friends that I needed to be more assertive. I needed to speak out and speak up for myself. I was quiet in my classes and I never wanted to ask questions or add anything to the discussions. But I managed to get a job at the college bookstore and again, the concept of being assertive was brought up.

After my first year in college, I moved from California to Arizona to this giant of a school called the University of Arizona. The only reason why I moved there was because my sister was there. I had been accepted to the University of Hawai’i but I knew if I went there, even though my family wanted me there, I would never finish college. I had too many friends from high school living in the area and I knew I lacked the self discipline to refrain from the extracurricular activities associated with college life. So I chose the desert. Trying to be proactive and hone in on my newly acquired assertive skills, I walked into the general advising office to find out what classes I needed to take and maybe find some direction in life. When I told the advisor I didn’t know what I was doing she snapped at me and asked, “Why DON’T you know what you’re doing?” My assertive skills quickly flew out the window and I became that shy, scared girl who just moved from a small island where I had lived all of my life. I walked out of that office crying and feeling completely lost and alone. I looked at the catalog and began taking classes that were part of general education and trying to take exploratory classes into fields I thought I might be interested in.

It wasn’t until I moved to Northern Arizona University that I met with another advisor. Almost four years after that experience and taking random classes, I finally had direction. I decided I was interested in the Broadcasting field and one of my professors was also my advisor. He called me into his office and we looked at my credits for graduation. I was actually much closer than I thought and he even added a history minor to my degree. After six years in college, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Broadcasting and a minor in History. I never went into the Broadcasting field but my training in public speaking and journalistic writing prepared me for any job that came my way. Ten years later, I received my Master’s degree in Secondary Education because I finally realized what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had been a substitute teacher at one point during my college career and I really enjoyed teaching. I’ve taught preschool, kindergarten, elementary, junior high, and college classes. I am now an Academic and Career Advisor at Salt Lake Community College. I am a general advisor but I am also the advisor for the Pacific Islander students. I carry with me that very first advising experience and it inspires me to be an advocate for students and to make sure the students that leave my office are well informed, understand what they need to do, and have all of their questions answered.

When Mr. Smith sent me some ideas on what to speak about, he included first generation college student, first generation American, and being a female AND a minority. The first two topics you’ve heard about but the final two I chose to not dwell on. The reasons for that? I have never used my gender or my ethnicity to influence anyone’s decision on accepting me into college or getting a job. Hard work, dedication, perseverance. Those are three items needed to succeed in school and in life. I could have given up trying to get into advising after my first application was rejected. Even when my second one went nowhere. I applied for advising positions and out of all of those applications, I was only given two interviews. The first one did not land me the job. The second one did.

As you’re thinking about college, and you all should be doing that now even if you’re in middle school, I want you to change the wording a little. Instead of saying “I’m going to college”, I want you to say “I will finish college”. Whether you’re going for a trade, getting certified in an area of technical expertise, or going for that Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, or beyond, I encourage you to work hard, be dedicated, and persevere, no matter how difficult things may seem. You’re going to take difficult classes. You’re going to have trials in your life. You’re going to get rejected at least once in your life. It’s how you overcome those obstacles that will make you a stronger person. Be successful. Be happy. Be YOU!


  1. Great speech - the students were lucky to have you. I see a lot of similarities in our upbringing here, esp with approach to education. LIke you, it was never...'are you...or will you go to college' It was always an accepted, expected norm for my siblings and I. Its what you do. Never any doubts that should and would be in our path. I take for granted though, how rare this approach can be for many other Pacific Island families, esp as we've moved here to NZ. Ive been speaking in a lot of schools etc and its sad to find so many PI students NOT have further education as an obvious life choice. One young woman said to me after i spoke - "Now I know that Samoans can be smart enough to write books, not just white people can write books." That SHOCKED me. Because growing up in Samoa, my peers, my classmates, my family, my friends etc NEVER EVER doubted that we/Samoans were capable of achieving whatever we wanted to.

    1. Thanks, Lani! I've had the same experiences here in the US with our Pacific Islander kids not understanding that going to college is the next step. Working in higher education has opened my eyes even more because so many of our students will start college but they won't finish due to financial difficulties, family obligations, etc. Trying to overcome those obstacles is extremely difficult because we want to continue to respect the cultural values but at the same time try to communicate that getting a college degree will benefit the family exponentially. A work in progress, to be sure!