Tongan EdD Student and Gates Millennium Scholar, Anita Kiteau-Tuiaki | Conducting Research on the First-Year Experience of Pacific Islander College Students


Raised by her maternal grandparents in Tonga, Anita shares her experience transitioning to school in the U.S., drawing motivation to pursue higher education from her elders, and receiving the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship to fund her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Now in her last year of her EdD program at Northcentral University, she looks forward to sharing her research on the first-year college experience of Pacific Islanders in order to find ways to increase their college graduation rates.

Anita Kiteau-Tuiaki with her husband and three children.

Anita Kiteau-Tuiaki with her husband and three children.


Tell us about your background and where you grew up.

I was raised in Tonga by my maternal grandparents. When I was 15, I moved to the US and definitely experienced the initial culture shock. Quite frankly, I never thought of moving far from home at such a young age to pursue the American dream. At first, I wanted to stay in Tonga and had always envisioned myself going to BYU Hawaii, but when the opportunity presented itself to continue my studies in Utah, I decided to trust in my elders and continue on this path.

How was your college experience and how did you decide on a major?

Growing up, I was very interested in math and dreamed of having a career in accounting. At the time, in the early 2000s, I didn’t know much about colleges in Tonga. If people from Tonga wanted to further their education, they would travel overseas for college. I mainly heard of BYU Hawaii and the University of the South Pacific.

I decided to pursue a BS in Business at the University of Utah, go Utes, with a focus on accounting. Throughout my college experience, I worked in student affairs with various student organizations, student government, student housing, and everything else that has to do with campus life. That’s where I developed my passion for working with people. Even though I was doing well in my accounting program, I started to lose that passion and realized how much I enjoy working and interacting with people. I especially loved working with college students and hopefully I have made positive influences on them. For that reason, I decided to switch my major to business administration during my senior year.

How did you pay your way through college?

I was blessed to have a cousin who worked in higher education and encouraged me to look into scholarships. Thanks to him and some of my high school counselors and teachers, I decided to apply to every scholarship under the sun at East High School. I applied to all sorts of scholarships, and was grateful to land many of them. I received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Utah in addition to becoming a Gates Millennium Scholar and a Ronald McDonald scholar. I was given over $37,000 in scholarships to start college.

You decided to pursue more than a college degree. Tell us about your graduate experience.

After getting my Business degree, I pursued my Master’s of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy and graduated in 2012, also from the University of Utah. I wanted to further my graduate studies then, but I thought that I was done at that point, so I transitioned to starting my career in college administration. I was grateful when the Gates Millennium Scholarship contacted me again and told me they could fund a doctoral program. When deciding between an EdD and a PhD, I realized that I was more interested in the practical side of things and applying theories to the field work. So in 2014, I started my EdD at Northcentral University emphasizing on Leadership in Higher Education. It’s an online doctoral program that provides me the flexibility of being a stay-at-home mom and continuing my schooling. Their doctoral program is a 3-year intense coursework plus your dissertation and research.

Tongan EdD Student and Gates Millennium Scholar, Anita Kiteau-Tuiaki.

Tongan EdD Student and Gates Millennium Scholar, Anita Kiteau-Tuiaki.

Your research is focused on Pacific Islander students. Can you tell us more about your Doctor of Education (EdD) work?

Right now, I am conducting research on Pacific Islander students and their first-year college experience. Although more Pacific Islanders are entering higher education, their college graduation rates are particularly lower than the national average from a retention perspective. There are many reasons for this –the incorrect aggregated data or the unique diversity challenges, to name a few. Still, Pacific Islanders continue to be misrepresented and marginalized in higher education. We bring with us a wealth of cultural assets to thrive in academia while combating systemic oppressions and navigating oceans of opportunity. We have a rich history and our stories need to be told by us. Hence, I’m specifically conducting my research on the first-year college experience of Pacific Islander students and how those experiences contribute to their college success. I’m giving them an opportunity to tell their own stories.

What advice do you have for Pacific Islander students preparing for college?

  • Do not always focus on your final destination, but enjoy the journey and be open to new possibilities.

  • Success is not about your net worth, but the meaningful relationships you develop and the difference you make in peoples’ lives.

  • Go after your dreams, because the possibilities are endless.

  • Most importantly, always remember where you come from. My grandparents and mom were my constant motivation during my school journey. I always remembered my late grandfather who told me to go after my dreams and to always put God first. Today, I have a supportive family that is cheering me on every day to push through, and I am half way through my dissertation. Even though my grandfather is not here, I tell myself that this doctorate is for him.  

 Want to make a difference in the lives of Pacific Islander scholars? Join our international volunteer community