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Prof. Faaleava wins presigious faculty award

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Dec. 30, 2009) – A former reporter for the Samoa Weekly has beaten hundreds of professors in the United States to win a top award at Portland State University (PSU).

Professor Vui Talitu Dr. Toeutu Faaleava has been honoured with the prestigious Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award for 2010.

The honour is given by the PSU Alumni Association to one teaching or retired faculty for excellence in the classroom and community service.

According to student nominators, Dr. Faaleava is "brilliant" and "understated." Faculty and colleagues describe him as "modest" and "humble."

Not bad for someone who once pumped petrol at a gas station in American Samoa and worked as a dental prosthetic technician for Dr. Aeau Leavai.

Dr. Faaleava will be officially recognized in a special ceremony in February 2010.

"The award is a great honour, but humbling, for in the company of exceptional faculty who have received the Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, I am woefully underachieved," said Dr. Faaleava.

Dr. Faaleava is donating the US$1,000 that comes with the award to the Faaleava-Whitefoot Scholarship.

The Faaleava-Whitefoot Pacific Islander Club Student Scholarship was created by the Pacific Islander Club of Portland State University to recognize the contributions that students of Pacific Island descent make to the educational, cultural, and social life of the campus.

The scholarship name honors Tabitha Whitefoot, a Yakama Native American elder, and Vui Talitu, Dr. Toeutu Faaleava, a Samoan matai.

Dr. Faaleava holds a BS from SIU, an MPA from Harvard, a BA, MA, JD and PhD from Berkeley. He is the director of the PSU McNair Scholars Programme.

He works with first-generation, low-income, and under-represented students to make them competitive candidates for PhD programs.

He teaches research seminars for McNair scholars and classes in University Studies.

Dr. Faaleava’s credentials are impressive. The academic route he took to world-renowned Berkeley and Harvard is equally remarkable, for it seemed untenable for a while.

Dr. Faaleava attended Xavier at Vaiusu, Vaigaga Primary School, Faleata Intermediate, Samoa College, Waitaki Boys in Oamaru and University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand for one year before dropping out in 1977.

He returned to Samoa and worked as a reporter for the Samoa Weekly, and as a dental prosthetic technician for Dr. Aeau Leavai.

He also did odd jobs and pumped gas in American Samoa before moving to the United States and enlisting in the US Navy in 1979.

He served as a corpsman with the US Marines, and after his military tour, he hitchhiked in Europe before returning to the US and to university in 1984.

Dr. Faaleava credits the Samoan community for his return to the academy after a seven-year hiatus.

"Every undertaking in Samoa is a community effort," he said. "My academic journey has been a community project. Family, friends, pastors and the community are all part of the support network that is helping me. Everyone is important, and as Samoans, we say: ‘E le sili le ta’i nai lo’o le tapua’i’."

Contextualizing his experience, Dr. Faaleava smiled: "Berkeley demilitarized my mind, and Harvard was an incredible experience, especially as it was also a reunion with old friends Ali’imuamua Esekia Solofa and Leuluaiali’i Tasi Malifa who were also studying at Harvard."

Ask about mentors, Dr. Faaleava acknowledged that he had gone through the school system in Samoa when some of the best teachers were in the classrooms.

He mentioned, among others, the Nuns at Xavier, Sititi, Sia’oloa Faatafao Esera To’ia, Tupolo Pagaiali’i, Mrs. Malietoa, Mrs. Philip, Toleafoa Faasau, Ali’imuamua Esekia Solofa, a few talented Peace Corps volunteers, Masiofo Filifilia Tamasese and Albert Wendt.

He also noted that his peers were very competitive not only at Samoa College but also at Saint Mary’s, Saint Joseph’s and Channel College.

They pushed each other, and today they are doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, professors and all manner of professionals in Samoa.

According to Dr. Faaleava, the classroom is a small part of one’s education.

When the classroom and lived experience are fluid, opportunities for insights and learning abound.

Dr. Faaleava moves seamlessly between the academy and Pacific Islander communities.

He is respected among Samoan communities in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and the Portland Metro Area in Oregon, USA for his community service.

While attending Berkeley, he worked with Leali’ie’e Henry Achatz and other Samoan leaders to organize the community and create the Samoa Community Development Center, the most effective non-profit community group providing direct services to the Samoan community and Pacific islanders in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Since moving to Portland in 2000 and teaching at Portland State University, Dr. Faaleava has helped organize the Samoan community and create the Samoa Pacific Development Corporation, a non-profit community group serving Samoans and Pacific islanders in Portland. Dr. Faaleava’s community organizing for social justice in and outside the university is his passion and focus.

Ask about the most influential book he has read, Dr. Faaleava replied: "Sons for the Return Home" by Albert Wendt.

According to Dr. Faaleava, he was fortunate to be in Samoa in the 1970s. Though he was a "kuoli" for having failed from New Zealand, he noticed the revolutionary changes happening around him.

Samoa was emerging from the vestiges of colonial rule. He met Aiono, Dr. Fanafi Le Tagaloa Pita when she visited Vaigaga Primary School and PhD entered his head for the first time.

Albert Wendt published "Sons for the Return Home" and changed the world.

Savea Sano Malifa started Samoa Observer and introduced Samoa to courageous investigative journalism that exposed corruption and inequity.

Students who had put themselves through universities overseas returned as professionals.

"I learned from Fiu Mataese Elisara, for example, that it was possible to work and go to school successfully. So when I left for the US in 1979, I was ready for new possibilities," said Dr. Faaleava.

Vui Talitu Dr. Toeutu Faaleava is the son of the late Toleafoa Asiata Faaleava and Faaeteete Lealasola Vui Talitu Faaleava of Lano, Vaiusu, Satupa’itea, Saasaai and Apia.

He is married to Sarah Graves, and they live with their children in Beaverton, Oregon.

"I believe deeply in the power of prayer and the Samoan tapuaiga, for help is always there," he said.

"When I needed a new dissertation topic upon realizing that researching street drug dealers in the ‘hoods’ was too dangerous, Tanielu Aiono Sataraka introduced me to the Fitafita.

"When western ideas threaten to overwhelm me, Sua Suluape Petelo carved a va’a on my back and commonsense into my brain.

"I thank in particular His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi for sharing his scholarship and papers. His words and kindness helped me complete my dissertation."

In closing, Dr. Faaleava reiterated his appreciation: "Faafetai Samoa mo talosaga ma le tapuaiga."

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