The University of Utah’s Pacific Islander Student Association

Story and photos by GEORGE W. KOUNALIS

In Tongan culture, fala mats have been a part of the kingdom’s traditions for much of its history. The fala design is created by weaving and hammering strips of trees, which creates a very strong material. The strength of this material represents the strength of the community. The University of Utah’s Pacific Islander Student Association is a strong example of fala.


A University of Utah shirt containing the fala weave pattern. Photo by George Kounalis.

“We love our students, we’re proud of them, ” Tevita “Ti” Kinikini said. As the adviser of the U’s Pacific Islander Student Association (PISA), he has many reasons to be proud. The walls of his office are covered in art done by PISA alumni. His office door is covered with newspaper articles about many of the students who went through the organization. “This door represents a lot of our community on this campus,” Kinikini said.

“I came to the University of Utah in 2007,” Kinikini said. “I was a high school counselor and teacher in the Salt Lake School District.” He left that position to help out the Pacific Islander community at the university. Kinikini is an academic adviser with the first-year program and family support coordinator at the Office for Equity and Diversity as well as the adviser for the Pacific Islander Student Association.


Tevita Kinikini is an academic adviser with the first-year program and family support coordinator at the Office for Equity and Diversity. He also serves as the adviser for PISA. Image courtesy of Kinikini.

PISA offers resources to many Pacific Islander students at the U. The program consists of many first-generation students who are studying music, fine arts, health sciences, social sciences, among other programs. PISA gives them a way to network on as well as off campus. “You can adjust the sails, but not the wind,” Kinikini said.

PISA allows a space to voice cultural advancement as well as improve academic achievement. “It’s been a long-standing club on campus,” said Hannah Makasini, a sophomore attending the University of Utah and member of PISA.

“In the past, we’ve done lots of activities, lots of student involvement, a lot of our students are involved with other things such as being orientation leaders,” Makasini said. “We like to think of our group as a welcome home for anybody, not just Pacific Islanders, but anybody who needs a friend to guide them through college.”

Grace Finau, a freshman attending the University of Utah and member of PISA, said, “In a sense, I feel like our club with our students, there’s a lot of groundbreaking going on. A lot of students venturing into areas that Polynesians aren’t necessarily involved in.” Many of these areas include being involved with Greek Life, New Student Orientation and the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs.

“Our club is very adamant and venturing out and doing groundbreaking stuff, we take our identity and our culture very seriously,” Finau said. “Our culture is very family and values-based.” She said the club doesn’t want to push people away from these values, but rather show that these values can be used to expand horizons.


Grace Finau (left) and Hannah Makasini. Photo by George Kounalis.

Kinikini said these resources allow the school and community to connect and grow. “Our students are active in a lot of different areas,” he said of the students involved with PISA.

The group co-hosted a conference for high schoolers with Salt Lake Community College’s Pacific Islander Student Association in March 2018. “That’s our biggest event, probably, on a year-long schedule,” Makasini said.

High schools in six different districts will send their Polynesian students to the conference at SLCC. “We have a lot of hardworking individuals in our group that have worked hard to get to where we’re at,” Makasini said about organizing the event.

The event provides high school students with several workshops. They can learn about college, adversities these students may face, and different ways they can get financial or admissions information for college.

“We want them to realize that higher-ed is doable and important,” Makasini said. “There’s this stigma that college is too expensive and it feels like the only way in is through sports.” The conference seeks to strike that stigma and show Polynesian high school students that there are other ways to get into college that don’t have to be through sports.

“Our conference is really resource based,” Finau said. “We have a lot of successful Pacific Islanders and people of other races that come and show these kids what you can do, and here’s how you do it.” Finau said this year’s theme for the high school conference is, “I can and will create my own tide.”

In addition to the high school conference, PISA does many other activities. “We do food drives, clothing drives, and we even have students involved through the Bennion Center that volunteer on their own,” Makasini said. Even now, PISA is jumping into action.

The Kingdom of Tonga was hit by Cyclone Gita in February 2018. The cyclone devastated the country and PISA is helping with relief efforts. This is currently one of PISA’s biggest projects.

“We’re in the gathering stages of humanitarian supplies and school supplies,” Kinikini said. “We are hoping to send out a crate here within the next three weeks of school supplies, hygiene products, household wares and gardening tools.”

He added, “They’re in the cleaning and rebuilding stage right now. This is what our club does.” PISA’s quick efforts to help the Kingdom of Tonga show that the fala of this community expands beyond just the University of Utah and its surrounding community. “No one cares how much you know, unless someone knows you care,” Kinikini said.

One does not have to be a Pacific Islander to join PISA. All University of Utah students are welcome. The organization hosts Power Talks two to three times a month. The group is also active on Facebook and Twitter.

For those interested in getting involved with the group or wishing to help PISA with their collection for Tonga, Tevita Kinikini can be reached at the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs in Suite 235 in the University of Utah’s A. Ray Olpin University Union Building.

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