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2014 national middle school principal of the year, Sheena Alaiasa shares personal journey to help Polynesian students succeed

“E kulia I ka nu’u”, or “strive for your highest potential,” was the recent Kaha Nui Summit’s theme. Sponsored by the McKay School’s Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department it was the second annual BYU Polynesian Interdisciplinary Summit.

(Photo Credit: McKay Creative)

“I am not a product of my circumstances; I am a product of my decisions,” stated keynote speaker Sheena Alaiasa at the beginning of her lecture titled, “The Power of Choice”.

Alaiasa was awarded the 2014 National Middle School Principal of the Year. She shared her personal journey and professional knowledge in an effort to help Polynesian individuals, specifically high school and college students, realize their full potential and worth.

Alaiasa raised her family to appreciate their culture; she instilled in them values and a strong identity through their Pacific Islander heritage. She spoke about her own cultural identity and her struggle to find it due to her father’s Irish background and her mother’s strong Maori heritage.

“It took me forever to accept my Irish identity. I had to embrace who I was and my cultural identity. I had to be able to understand that I am half Irish and accept that,” Alaiasa said. “Why did I need to accept that? I had to understand my core values and who I was. My mom taught me to make a choice and make a stand,” she explained.

Neither of her parents finished high school; her father arrived in New Zealand at age 15 to work and when her parents met, her mother never went back to school.

“Did my parents know and understand about college?” she asked. “Would my parents have ever dreamed I would be in this position? Probably not. But that was okay because my core family values were fundamentally based on culture. That’s my rock. I teach the values that they taught me to my children.”

Alaiasa was raised in Turangi, a town with a population of 3,000, in the middle of New Zealand’s north island. In this central town, prominent local gangs, such as Highway 69 and Black Power, converge and fight.

“My cousin was the hit of the Mongrel Mob at that time,” said Alaiasa. “To be the hit of the Mongrel Mob, you had to decapitate someone, and that’s what he did. His choices led him to where he is today. But this is my family that I grew up with and I understood to be my world.”

Working in Hawaii, Alaiasa understood her students’ situations. Speaking directly to the audience, she said that she knew where these high school kids sitting before her were coming from. Having had parents who worked as prison officers in Turangi, she had been raised within the prison compound. She understood that her students’ backgrounds were broken homes where the main occupation was drug dealing.

“As I went along, I decided what was my choice,” she recounted. “I had a choice to carry on as everyone else and join the gangs in Turangi . . . [I] have a brother who chose to dabble in that. He’s seven years younger than me, so I was able to pull him out of it, but it was hard to stick around the kids that you were with and their choices to choose wrong. Then you usually follow them.”

Growing up, her parents taught her to choose what she wanted to do. She had the choice to stay where she was and work at the prison or to stay and party every night. In New Zealand, there are always parties.

“You party with your teachers, your parents, your uncles and aunties, your grandparents,” Alaiasa said. “You’re all together in the garage, and you’re all drinking and singing. This is the lifestyle that I knew. This is my choice—that I had to go and look out the window and see if I really wanted to make that choice, and where I wanted to go with my life.”

There is power with having choices. With every choice there are always two consequences; there’s a positive and a negative.

What is your choice?

Alaiasa was not the best student in school. Her options afterwards were limited and her dreams were crushed quite a few times. However, she had a teacher that changed her life. Her teacher and coach pushed her, told her to break down the barriers in front of her, and showed her how to teach through example.

“The influence of change influences the person you become,” she said. “Teachers show you where to look and tell you what to see. That’s teaching. That’s for you to understand that you can do this. My principal didn’t even believe in me, but I had one person who did.”

Though not a true academic, Alaiasa defeated the odds and became a principal. She won the 2014 National Middle School Principal of the Year award because of her students. She implemented structures that the students could believe in. Her school in Hawaii, Kamehameha, became a safe haven. Most importantly, Alaiasa changed the lives of students because they started believing in themselves.

When students leave home, their choices direct their lives. This is the Kaha Nui that will lead them to that summit because it becomes their choice. Alaiasa received her award because she believes in cultural values and in the power of choice.

“The power of choice comes down to where you want to go,” she stated. “Whether you are a true academic or not, you have the ability to change your life. It’s up to you; nobody can do this for you. People can believe in you and help you, guide you, but you have the choice whether to take it or not. Those around you are trying to help you; it’s your choice whether to take it.”

She encouraged students to use the power of choice to benefit their lives.

“We’ve made choices, we’re going to live those choices, and we’re going to do the very best that we can,” Alaiasa said. “Look around and appreciate what you’ve got. Rise to the Kaha Nui and rise to the summit.”

New Zealand native Sheena Alaiasa is currently the principal at Kamehameha High School in Oahu, Hawaii, and focuses her instruction on best practices and personalizing education for her students. Alaiasa holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Brigham Young University–Hawaii and a master’s degree in administration leadership from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Writer: Joann Distler

Contact: Cynthia Glad (801) 422-1922