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Breaking a Pattern, Creating a Legacy

January 2017

Suelaki Ulugia


It’s hard to be the first—to break a pattern and tread a new path. But Suelaki Ulugia, a BYU–Hawaii student from Samoa, did just that. As the second youngest in a family of eight children, he became the first person in his family to graduate from college. 

Now Suelaki wants to help make it a little easier for others to follow his path. “My parents and my siblings didn’t have the opportunity to go to college,” he says. “I want to help the children in Samoa know the value of education. That’s what I want to do in the future.”

Breaking a Pattern 

Suelaki graduated from a Church-owned high school in Samoa and attended one year of college at the National University of Samoa before serving a mission in the New Zealand Auckland Mission. When he returned home, however, he lost interest in continuing his education—until one day when a friend invited him to hang out at the chapel where institute classes are held.

“I saw a note on the door saying that there was a placement test for BYU–Hawaii,” Suelaki says. “I thought to myself, ‘I need to go and give it a try.’ So I went in and took the test.” The next day a senior missionary called Suelaki and told him that he passed the test and that he should apply to BYU–Hawaii. 

For Suelaki it wasn’t that simple. All of his siblings were living overseas, and he says applying to BYU–Hawaii “was a really tough decision because I wanted to stay with my parents. I was the only one back home to help and support them.” But rather than be the reason Suelaki stayed home, his parents encouraged him to apply. “It was my father who pushed me really hard to come here, to take this opportunity,” he says, “and my mother is my great motivation to further my education.”

Suelaki’s mother was 10 years old when she dropped out of school. Her father had left the family and remarried, and her mother fell ill. Being the oldest of five children, Suelaki’s mother stayed home to take care of her mother and siblings. 

“By the time my grandma passed away, my mother had missed all those years to go to school, so she just stayed home,” Suelaki says. “I’m doing this not only for myself but for my mother.”

Creating a Legacy

At BYU–Hawaii Suelaki studied political science, with the goal to work in the Ministry of Education in Samoa. “Now that I know the value of education—what it feels like to be educated, how it can help us reach our goals—I want to help my people,” he says. “I want to enforce the importance of education in Samoa. I want to help develop plans to encourage the children of Samoa to go to school.” 

Suelaki is well on his way to achieving his goal. After graduating from BYU–Hawaii he returned to Samoa and got an internship and then a job in the country’s Ministry of the Prime Minister and Cabinet working with the Policy Implementation and Monitoring Unit. 

Giving Thanks

The key that enabled Suelaki to attend BYU–Hawaii and fueled his desire to help others receive an education was the university’s work-study financial-aid program for international students, called I-WORK. 

“I’m so thankful for the I-WORK program,” Suelaki says. “I know that without it I wouldn’t have been able to get the education that I wanted for my family—for my parents, since they didn’t even have the opportunity to go to college. I wouldn’t be able to achieve my goals and my career.”

Knowing that I-WORK is largely funded by charitable donations to the university, Suelaki adds, “I am so grateful for all the donors who allow us to study abroad and return home to serve our countries.”