Planning a Better Future
Saoi seeks to keep more of her community in higher education
Saoimanu “Saoi” Sope and her two best friends were inseparable during the first term of their freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. They were three of 31 Pacific Islander students at a university of over 15,000 undergraduates in 2011. They did everything together, and Saoi related more to them because of a shared ethnic identity.
“We felt like we were in this huge ocean, and we were the three fish in a school of all kinds of fish,” Saoi said. “I wouldn’t have to explain myself so much. With my other friends who I met I was refrained from saying certain things, or thinking a certain way because I felt like it could be interpreted as me not being smart. With them, I was at ease about saying whatever was on my mind without having to monitor or police myself.”
Just a few months into their first year, Saoi’s best friends left the university. One dropped out after being placed on academic probation, and the other decided to try to transfer to another university.
Three years later, Saoi experienced the same sense of loss when two underclassmen interns for the Community Unified Student Network (CUSN) — a peer retention program dedicated to the Asian American/Pacific Islander community — dropped out of the university due to financial struggles. The program is housed under Engaging Education (e2), UCSC’s Student-Initiated Outreach and Retention Center for student engagement and academic excellence.
CUSN was Saoi's way to give back to her own community. As a first-generation college student, and one of 12 sibilings, Saoi saw needs in her community—ranging from accessing higher education, navigating financial aid, and graduating college. She continually works to strengthen programs at UCSC to address those needs.
She kept in mind something e2’s staff advisor, Marienne “Yenyen” Cuison, told her many times before—this wasn’t about two CUSN interns dropping out, it’s a much larger issue their community is facing. It’s about people of color being pushed out of the university in different ways and forms, and on a system-wide level.
“I cried,” Saoi said. “It was very hard for me because I was seeing my people come and finish their first year, and then maybe they got further than their first year, and I would be so excited, and then their third or second year, they get pushed out.”
But it’s instances where Saoi sees her people and her friends come so far in their educational pursuit, and then not graduate that keeps her dedicated to her work in retention. When her friends left the university first year, she realized that retention is a different challenge for Pacific Islander students and other students of color. She said using the Student Agency Model, "students create and maintain change despite any outside forces that may being going against them."
Saoi says getting into school is one thing, but graduating from school is an entirely different story. She compares it to “how we maintain ourselves while running a race—it’s about how long we can last, not about if you get a chance to run the race, but if we get to the finish line.”
“The work doesn't stop when you get admitted to college,” Saoi said. “It doesn't stop when you get an acceptance letter and you move into your dorm. The work continues on, and not that it stops, but we know that we reach our goal when our people get their degrees and actually walk across the stage.”
Saoi’s dedication to education is a value she's held from a young age, but something she didn’t know how to share with peers until she became involved in CUSN. In middle school, even though Saoi went to a diverse school in Long Beach, California, she felt like an outsider. The majority of her friends were Samoan, but they didn’t take school as seriously as she did. Saoi enjoyed being in class and turning in her homework on time, unlike most of her friends.
"I came from family where they prioritized taking care of each other instead of furthering their education, and I have respect for being able to do that," Saoi said. "My ability to be in a position where I can financially go to college even though I'm taking out loans and on financial aid is allowing my experience to be lived through my family. I actually like the idea that I'm doing all these things that my family never got to do because they don't want me to do the things they do. They want me to do more, and that definitely keeps me grounded but it also allows me to stay hungry and stay positive and motivated."
She made an intentional decision to go to a high school with few to no Pacific Islanders, because she said she didn’t want to continuously be discouraged for her academic rigor. She soon became the first Samoan to graduate Port of Los Angeles High School.
But after transitioning to UCSC—where she rarely saw Pacific Islanders on campus—her choice to separate herself from her community in high school was a decision she began to look back on with regret. “In college was when it really sank in that I went from intentionally going to a high school where there were no Pacific Islanders to actually going to a university where I had expected more of my people to be present at and they just weren't,” Saoi said.
Her work for e2 has also inspired her goals beyond graduation. Saoi aims to start her own non-profit organization similar to e2 to address issues surrounding retention and academic excellence, and to increase AA/PI representation in higher education. She plans to use film as a platform for social change, and a way to engage diverse communities.
"My main goal is to leave my position as a student organizer and feel comfortable," Saoi said. "I want to leave knowing that everything is completely in good hands, and I feel that way now, but I want to feel even better about it before I leave."