APIDA of the Week: Meet Tonu Tenari

We met so many passionate, articulate, and inspiring APIDAs from all walks of life that we couldn’t just stop at 31 Days of APIDAs. So here’s a bonus interview featuring Tonu Tenari, a fourth year anthropology major and cognitive science minor.

How do you identify?

First generation, full Samoan, female, and first generation college student from Long Beach. Rooted in a long history of seafarers and warriors from Western Samoa.

Why did you choose UCLA?

Attending PISA (Pacific Islands Students Association)’s Yield/Bruin Day Weekend. As opposed to when I visited other college campuses, this institution was the only one that actually catered to my community: Pacific Islanders pursuing higher education. The first PISA member I met was Live Maluia, who actually turned out to be my cousin! I had no idea and my parents just got out of the car all casual and were like, “Oh, hey Live.” Since then, I became comfortable with the idea of coming here to UCLA knowing that I had family here to help guide me along the way. On this same weekend, I made a strong connection with older PISA members and was originally going to enroll at USC but changed my mind after that Bruin Day weekend and SIR’d to UCLA. Ever since I was in middle school, USC was my dream school so my family was surprised that I chose otherwise. My intention of coming to Yield/Bruin Day weekend was just to have fun and get out of the house, but PISA’s program had such an impact on me that I began to be able to imagine myself here for the next four years. That was a game changer and it just goes to show how powerful PISA’s presence is to our community. We try to make positive impacts everyday.

How do you think your identity affects your experiences at UCLA?

I grew up in a traditional Samoan family. My household practices consisted of the values of Fa’a Samoa and being raised in this type of environment had a huge influence on the interactions and relationships I made here at UCLA. I sympathize with lower income and marginalized communities at UCLA because they parallel the community conditions that I am familiar with. Coming to UCLA was a culture shock because I came into contact with people who were obviously more privileged than myself. But being active in PISA helped to keep me rooted, supported, and retained. Engaging with my peers within these spaces inspired me to become an active voice within the community. PISA taught me that if you don’t fight for your community, no one else will do it for you.

When I first got here I never really thought about the disproportionate amount of PIs in STEM related career fields. It also didn’t dawn on me how lonely it would get or how people would categorize me as dumb because of my profile. I recall the struggle to form study groups but I felt like it was a hostile environment. South campus is so competitive; everyone is trying to compete against each other and unknowingly bring each other down. Coming from a community where I’m heavily invested in my family and going to school for reasons besides self fulfillment makes it hard to connect with others. I didn’t feel that many people in my classes, at that time, understood this struggle or shared these responsibilities. My cultural identity already set me on a separate trajectory from many here at UCLA. My experiences with PISA and PIER have helped me to realize that my eventual goal is to go home and increase access to health care for my communities of color. I’m just trying to make sure that I’m making ways for my community to improve as well as build others up.

In the end, I have decided to become a medical social worker and hope to increase the dialogue on mental health by eliminating stigmas and promoting a holistic approach to wellness. My identity is intricately tied to my cultural values, career goals as well as my hope to give back to the community.

Are you in any student groups on campus? What are some of your experiences?

PISA, PIER (Pacific Islander Education and Retention), Pacific Islanders for Health. These entities capture the biggest values I learned during my time at UCLA. As a hugely underrepresented population on campus, PISA creates a space to give voice to issues like disaggregated data and eliminating stereotypes surrounding Pacific Islanders in athleticism and militarism.

During my freshman year, I was enrolled in the cluster for interracial dynamics. I remember introducing myself to classmates who specifically asked about my ethnicity. When I told them that I was Pacific Islander, I specified that I was from the island of Samoa. They were quick to equate Pacific Islander under the popular umbrella term AAPI, but mistakenly said that these two communities were the same. Which they are NOT. As a first year, I quickly came to the realization that many students are under the impression of referring to textbooks (written by our own colonizers) to try and tell me where my ancestors came from. That was one of the most powerful experiences I had experienced of Western privilege. I realized that Western education was a dominant force that tries to oppress the narratives that indigenous people have experienced. No textbook should have the power to erase an entire history of people who have passed down their culture with spoken language and gestures for thousands of years. That was a massive wake up call, which is why I am so vocal about the presence of PISA on campus. We exist to establish a genuine and authentic account of Pacific Islander struggles and hope to spread it to the greater Los Angeles network.

PIER had a huge part in shaping my strengths into a career. I had always been flexible with tutoring methodologies and loved to learn about how others learned. As a reflection of low retention and matriculation rates into college, I learned the significance that this project has in creating the bridge from UCLA to home. This project symbolizes a stepping stone for many of my family and friends who can get motivated to succeed in the academic sphere. During my time here at UCLA, I had gotten on academic probation and actually stooped very low by becoming subject to dismissal (STD). I became depressed and extremely anxious. One of my biggest motivations to turn my GPA around and to succeed was knowing that my PIER students, as well as the kids from my church and family, looked up to me as a role model. While I continued to preach and lecture them about the importance of meeting their A-G requirements, I began to start taking my own advice. Also by sharing my academic struggles with PIER students and being honest about my progress, I no longer felt alone and neither did they. I worked hard with my students to simultaneously reach our goals. I was deeply touched by the progress that many students had made with the mission that PIER strives to fulfill. I started to pray more and practice methods of self-love and self-care. Because of this, PIER will always have a special place in my heart, and I serve now as the Outreach Coordinator who overlooks the project.

By combining my two passions for increasing access to higher education as well as increasing access to affordable healthcare, I came across medical social work. So now I have come full circle.

What’s your favorite part of your culture(s)?

“E iloa le tama ma le teine Samoa i lana tu ma le savali, fa’apea ma lana tautala.” Rough translation: “You know a Samoan male or female by the way that they present themselves (stance), the way they walk (grace) as well as how they speak with others.” The three core values all PIs share are their faith in God, their family, and their culture.

This quote captures how one identifies as a Samoan through language. One of the biggest problems in the U.S. is that there are a loss of languages everywhere. With language serving as one of the biggest markers of culture, what does it mean when more and more generations of Pacific Islanders are not retaining and transmitting the tongue of our ancestors? By being monolingual English speakers, we are playing into a very systematic way of disconnecting us with who we are and where we originated from. The way you conduct yourself and the way you walk incorporates the pride one has in their history and the gracefulness in which we dance. These things are meaningful to us. Being raised with Fa’a Samoa, there is no greater pride I have than to display the rich history that my parents taught me. Without my parents, I would have turned out to be a completely different person. They were the foundation of cultural values that shaped me into who I was today. Growing up in the U.S. there is a large demand to assimilate and I am glad to acknowledge that I am one of the few Pacific Islanders on campus that actually speak their language and understand it fluently. I carry this privilege with me and hope to pass this on to my future generations.

What’s your greatest challenge right now?

Honestly, I’m just trying to stay mentally strong throughout these next week of finals and studying. I pray everyday for strength and guidance. Spreading prayers of endurance and well wishes to all of my graduating seniors, we are almost there!!!

What’s your favorite memory of UCLA?

Institutionally, my favorite experience was finally getting straight A’s this year. Within the past two years that I had been on a contract, I have worked through my own anxieties of inadequacy and self-doubt. My grades reflect how I have overcome something that I struggled with for a long time. These grades also combine with the newfound confidence that I gained in finding my passion with mental health and being able to spread this impact through programming the annual Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Youth Health and Fitness Day for three years in a row. This time period has been very symbolic in ways that I have established to improve myself – emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. It was a reflection of all the personal growth I made on campus. My second favorite memory was meeting my best friend while working for PIER in my first year. He kept me sane throughout all of the ups and downs that I experienced during my time here at UCLA. As of this today, this person will have been my boyfriend for about three years and some. Shoutout to Wade Yandall, my college sweetheart.

What is on your UCLA or LA bucket list?

I’ve done everything on my bucket list. I’m an outgoing person so I’ve done many things I’ve wanted to do, like rushing a sorority, trying out for club sports, maintaining a long term relationship, getting involved with community service, organizing health fairs, meeting lifelong friends through PISA, and working meaningful jobs. I am very humbled to have ended my Bruin career on a very positive note as well as being surrounded by an excellent support system.

Check out Asian Pacific Coalition’s new website!

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