The Pacific Ocean is massive. Water from the ocean covers more than thirty percent of the Earth’s surface. Reassemble all of the continents and that giant landmass would still be smaller than the Pacific. There is no combination of swimming pools, football fields or school busses that provide an adequate picture of the ocean’s scale.
The Pacific’s size is dizzying, even intimidating. It would be understandable if someone — say a 13-year-old young woman — stood on a familiar shore, looked out across that endless blue, and decided to turn back.
That’s not what Exita Lealofi chose. Lealofi spent most of her formative years growing up on American Samoa. The U.S. territory is a series of seven islands and atolls in the South Pacific about 1,500 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand's largest city, Auckland.
Lealofi’s oldest sister (Exita is the youngest of three siblings) left American Samoa to attend college in Hawaii. The same sister later moved to Washington state. “My sister convinced my parents to let me live with her so I could go to school,” said Lealofi. “I came here when I was thirteen.”
Those first few weeks and months were difficult. “I didn’t really understand English,” said Lealofi. “On top of that I had a difficult time finding where I belonged.” The situation improved when Lealofi’s mother made the difficult decision to move. “She sacrificed a good job to come here to Washington just for me, so that I would feel at home,” said Exita Lealofi.
Sacrifice borne of a deep love is a theme in Lealofi’s family. “It’s a huge sacrifice for my parents to live apart so that I am able to have the opportunities they never had,” she said. “My oldest sister delayed getting a master’s so I could go to college.”
Lealofi graduated from Mt. Tahoma High School in 2019. “I planned on pursuing a law degree, not necessarily because I was interested in it, but because people told me I was good at debating and that I really seemed to enjoy politics,” she said.
Lealofi originally planned on attending Gonzaga University. “I got accepted and actually spent a week over there getting to know the campus,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t connect with people, I felt like nobody understood my experiences as a person of color.”
Around the same time, a friend of Lealofi’s invited her to tag along on a tour of UW Tacoma. “The first thing I noticed when we arrived on campus is how diverse UW Tacoma is,” she said. “I went home after the tour and told my family I wasn’t going to Gonzaga, that I wanted to try UW Tacoma.”
It didn’t take Lealofi long to acclimate. “I discovered in my first quarter here that diversity at UW Tacoma is a seat at the table,” she said. “I started going to different events and programs and immediately the people here made me feel included in the conversation and that my experiences matter.”
Lealofi fully embraced campus life at the start of her sophomore year. “There’s a renowned proverb in my culture, ‘O le ala i le pule o le tautua,’ ” she said. “In English, that translates to, ‘The pathway to leadership is through service.’ ”
Lealofi took a job as a Pack Advisor. “The program provides incoming students with a sense of security and reliability,” she said. “Being a Pack Advisor has been one of my favorite experiences because it allowed me to give back to the university and to share my knowledge with others.”
Lealofi ultimately decided to step away from the program after two years so she could focus on being part of ASUWT where she is currently the Director of University Affairs. “We’re working on all kinds of issues including affordable housing and reproductive healthcare on campus,” she said. “These sorts of projects are one way I can make sure students have what they need to be successful and feel like the belong.”
Off campus, Lealofi stays busy mentoring Pacific Islander students at Mt. Tahoma High School. “I help them with their homework but I also teach them traditional Samoan dances and that includes teaching them the Samoan language as well as the history,” she said.
Lealofi is proud of her Samoan culture, and, at UW Tacoma, she’s found a space where she can explore that heritage and share it with others. Lealofi is part of the Global Honors program and is pursuing a minor in Global Engagement. The capstone project in Global Engagement is a thesis paper of a student’s choosing. “I picked this minor because I wanted to know who I was as a Pacific Islander,” she said. “My thesis is about Pacific Islander history, the history prior to colonization but I’m also looking at where my people are now. My faculty advisor on this project is Tanya Velasquez. She’s done an amazing job helping me with my research and encouraging me to keep going.”
Lealofi graduates in June with a degree in Ethnic, Gender, and Labor Studies (EGL). “I took a course from Alex Miller and I talked to him about my interest in different cultures and he suggested I look into sociology classes and that brought me to EGL,” she said.
After graduation, Lealofi plans to continue her education. “I want to pursue a master’s degree that is based on the work I’m doing with my thesis.” she said. “I’m also interested in higher education so the degree I choose will prepare me for a career in academia.”
Exita Lealofi is nearing the end of this part of her journey. Every journey begins with a first step and Lealofi's first step required her to cross the largest single entity on Earth. She could have turned back, but didn't. “I chose to go to college because I wanted to discover myself and I was hoping there were people along the way that could help me find out who Exita is," she said.