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Ifo Pili, MPA, shares life experiences and inspires students to seek graduate degrees

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world?
It is the people, the people, the people!

students enjoying dinner before the key note speech

This Maori proverb perfectly captures the spirit of BYU’s Kaha Nui Summit. For the past three years, students and professionals have gathered on campus to share the interdisciplinary expertise, academic work, professional knowledge, and personal journeys of Pacific Islanders. The focus of each summit has been to empower the people of the Pacific Islands—especially BYU students—because, as the proverb says, people are the most important thing in the world.

Recognizing the need for current college students to have exposure to graduate programs and opportunities, assistant professor of counseling psychology in the David O. McKay School of Education and summit founder Kawika Allen expanded the summit’s scope. Allen ensured that the summit vision this year was about encouraging BYU students to learn, connect, and be inspired to prepare for post-baccalaureate work.

Kawika Allen
Summit founder Kawika Allen

Graduate booths from various schools and emphases lined the beautiful walls of the Garden Court in the Wilkinson Student Center as students and professionals chatted over dinner. Many undergraduate students were unsure about post-baccalaureate studies and came to the summit with unclear perspectives on their future education.

However, those uncertainties were quelled with the inspiring message given by the keynote speaker Ifo Pili. “Tonight, I was able to learn a lot about what I need to do to get where I want to be. Before I wasn’t sure I wanted to do grad school right away or if I even wanted to do it at all, but after tonight I got really excited about going through the process to get to grad school. It’s opened my eyes to opportunities that I will have if I do grad school,” said student Alexandria Parker. “It’s definitely part of my plan now.”

When admissions and recruitment administrator for BYU Graduate Studies Logan Gillette introduced Pili, he made a reference to the character Maui from the Disney movie Moana. With one look at Pili, it’s not hard to see why. This ex-NFL football player—who can currently bench press 560 pounds—certainly resembles the demigod. The similarities don’t stop with physical appearance. Pili is also something of a way-finder.

Ifo Pili, MPA
Ifo Pili, MPA, shares a laugh with the crowd

Pili is a leader in the community as the city administrator for Eagle Mountain City as well as a leader in his faith as the bishop for the Eagle Mountain 14th Ward. The impressive life of leadership Pili has led began with an intimate conversation he had at age 11 with his father.

Pili’s father ran for governor in American Samoa in his forties, which is very young by the culture’s standards. One evening when Pili and his father were alone, Pili’s father admitted that he was not going to win the race. Pili, who was already packing his bags for the governor’s mansion, was confused. Then why was he running? His father said something that changed Pili’s life forever: “Son, I’m doing this for you, to let you know that it’s not okay to stand on the side and watch.”

His father’s powerful message has been a binding thread in Pili’s life and was the theme of his address at the summit. Pili made three main points in his speech: (1) fill your can, (2) have a proper perspective of your culture, and (3) focus on your family.

Fill Your Can

“First thing is that we need to fill our cans, and I think that is very appropriate, especially as we talk about education,” Pili said. “If you hit a tin can hard enough you can make a whole lot of noise, but at the end of the day you’re hitting an empty tin can, and there’s no substance in that can.” He continued by emphasizing that education is a powerful way to fill one’s can with meaningful substance.

To drive home this point, Pili shared the bizarre circumstance that resulted in his career as a city administrator. “Two months into my internship [with the city of Eagle Mountain], the mayor was charged with embezzlement, and he resigned. The mayor before him kidnapped himself, so it was a pretty volatile time for the city. [Then] the city manager left, the planning director left, and there I was, this intern in this little cubicle that I could barely fit in. I was appointed acting city manager,” Pili said with a laugh.

Speaking of a full can, Pili chalked up this amazing opportunity to the fact that he was pursuing a master’s degree at the time, making him the most qualified candidate for the position. Pili reflected, “If it wasn’t for my master’s degree . . . then these opportunities wouldn’t have come.”

Have a Proper Perspective of Your Culture

Ifo Pili teaching

Pili wanted to make sure that the students in attendance knew that they shouldn’t be fearful of changing their culture for the better. “We have a responsibility not only to preserve our culture, but to pass it on better,” he said.

His experience moving to Utah in high school serves as a reminder to him that he should use culture to serve him, rather than allowing himself to be limited by it. Once settled in America, Pili was exposed to the cliques of high school, which did not exist in American Samoa. “One of my neatest experiences when I moved here was that I got to see a nerd for the first time. I want to say he even had the tape on his glasses,” Pili said with a chuckle.

The pressures of the various social groups confused young Pili, causing him to quit the debate team that he was passionate about, but felt did not fit the Samoan way. One of his life’s greatest regrets was quitting the team because of a false idea about his culture. He has since learned to preserve his culture while improving it for future generations. He said, “We put our own layer on the foundation of our culture before we move it forward.”

Focus on Your Family

The next topic—family—is one that resonated strongly with the Pacific Islander audience. Family ties among Pacific Islanders are powerful bonds that hold the culture together, and Pili stressed the importance of bringing honor to one’s parents and family.

If you do nothing in this world but bring honor to your parents, you’ll be successful,” he said. “If you don’t have enough motivation or discipline to do it yourself, do it for your family; do it to bring honor to your family’s name.”

BYU student enjoying conversation

Pili also added that, contrary to popular belief, doing something just for your family is a good enough reason to do something. “I can say that in this setting because I know you understand what I’m saying,” he added. There was a shared cultural understanding of his words throughout the speech.

Three years ago, Pili’s father was in the hospital due to his failing health. He and Pili were once again alone. The conversation they had this time was perhaps less profound than the talk they had when Pili was a boy, but no less impactful.

Of that conversation Pili said, “It wasn’t necessarily the things he said in that last conversation—it was more so the things unsaid, the things I knew about his life. He was ready [to pass on] because he spent his whole life on the field, not on the sidelines.”

The message was not lost on the BYU students in attendance. There was an air of excitement among them and a feeling of confidence facing the future. How could they not feel good after having the real-life Maui help them find their way?

Writer: Jake Gulisane

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922