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Kicking off Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month with the 4th Annual VASA High School Conference

Kicking off Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month with the 4th Annual VASA High School Conference


The room of students and staff fell silent as a woman singing a Samoan Ava entered the room. Soon after, young Samoan and Tongan men dressed in traditional garb engaged in a Hawaiian chant to set the tone of the event and welcome attendees.

More than 150 SFUSD students from Balboa High School, Abraham Lincoln High School, and June Jordan School for Equity attended the 4th Annual VASA High School Conference at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) on April 26. City College’s VASA/Oceania Student Success Program offers culturally specific programs for Pacific Islander (PI) and all students.

San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Faauuga Moliga provided opening remarks by sharing his personal story, and encouraging students to believe in themselves and to take advantage of the resources available to them. As a Samoan alumni of the VASA program, he understands the importance of the annual event for PI students.

“Having space matters. Having a community where people can come together to learn about their culture with people who are similar to them, is important,” he said. “There’s something to say when you can have these kind of opportunities in an educational space for students. It’s empowering, it builds self-esteem, and it allows students to know they’re not alone on this journey.”

Program emcee, Andrew Va’i, is the Peer Mentoring Program Coordinator for Students Supporting Students at CCSF. The Balboa High School alumni said he was unsure what to do with his life after high school. He eventually decided to attend CCSF where he found mentorship and community in the VASA program, which propelled him to complete his studies at CCSF and go on to graduate from San Francisco State University (SF State) where he is currently enrolled in a master’s degree program.

Va’i warmed up the early morning crowd by teaching a few Samoan words and instructing students to rubs their hands, as he shouted words like patia (clap) and luamai (two times), to which students enjoyed.

Students then broke off into various workshops focusing on topics like social justice and community involvement, how climate change impacts PI communities, PI ethnic studies, being a student athlete as well as a presentation of resources and information through the VASA program.

Epetasi Olo, a sophomore at Balboa High School, shared why it’s important to have events like this as a PI student. “Everyone should learn about our culture but our culture doesn’t come up in class. I feel good being here. People who aren’t Pacific Islander who are here can learn more about where we come from and our culture.”

PI culture is deeply woven into the VASA program, starting with its name. Dr. David Ga’oupu Palaita, an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and Program Coordinator for the Critical Pacific Islands & Oceania Studies Program, shared, “VASA is not just a fancy name. VASA is an indigenous epistemological framework. VASA is the Samoan translation for ‘ocean.’ It’s two words put together to create one. ‘Va’ meaning relational space and ‘sa’ meaning sacred. The ocean is actually the space that is sacred. It’s the connections we make. That’s what we want our students to start doing in education, to make those connections.”

SFUSD is committed to equitably supporting Pacific Islander students. In April 2018, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution in support of Equitable Services and Staff for Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Students.

We celebrate the accomplishments, contributions, and cultures that make up of our Asian Pacific Islander communities throughout the month of May for Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month and all year-long.