UCLA’s Pacific Islands' Student Association (PISA) | Addressing Pacific Islander Educational Disparities in Los Angeles


UCLA’s PISA is one of the nation’s leading Pacific Islander (PI) higher education student groups. Since 1986, PISA has been fighting against Pacific Islander stereotypes, strengthening its community, and going out into the Los Angeles area to empower high school students to pursue higher education. With Pacific Islander college graduation rates below the national average and with Pacific Islander scholars representing less than 1% across all University of California (UC) institutions, PISA is working to improve those statistics through their impactful community programming. Karla Blessing Sāvaliolefilemū Thomas, president of UCLA’s PISA and Pacific Islander community leader, talks about the group’s history, programs, and the importance of PI representation in higher education.


When and why was UCLA’s PISA created?

PISA was founded at UCLA in 1986 to provide positive representations of PI’s on campus and in the community. UCLA PISA is also the first ever PISA/Pacific Islander organization established at an institution of higher education in the U.S.

At our inception, PISA was very much against the exotification and sexualization of Pacific Islanders (we still are) especially in regards to entertainment (people saw us as only entertainers, dancers or performers). As a result, for a very long time (up until 2014), PISA never held a culture night to combat these negative stereotypes. As the needs of Pacific Islanders became more apparent, PISA created the following mission statement:

"The Pacific Islands’ Student Association strives to empower the Pacific Islander communities at UCLA and within the greater Los Angeles area. As advocates, we hope to cultivate consciousness of indigenous issues, develop and maintain cultural interests, and address educational disparities by increasing access to higher education. ...IN SOLIDARITY. " 

What are PISA’s major programs?

PISA has about 11 annual programs, but here are our biggest programs:

  • Pasifka Arts & Culture (PAC) Night: Live Maluia created what is now known as the Pasifika Arts & Culture (PAC) Night to celebrate the cultures of the Pacific, while keeping audiences informed on the meanings of dances and practices.

  • Pacific Islander Education & Retention (PIER): Our alumni have been very dedicated to the issue of increasing access to higher ed for PIs, and many came out of their own pockets in the 80s and 90s to drive out to high schools in LA to tutor/mentor HS and JuCo PI students. They are actually still paying off their debt to this day. Thanks to their legacy, PISA has an established outreach project known as the Pacific Islander Education & Retention (PIER) Project, that has a full time coordinator and 6 paid part-time student positions. They go to HS & JuCo sites 3 times a week to tutor/peer advise students all over LA and also hold annual events. PIER is a key component of PISA.

  • IMUA/ 'i mua (Islanders Maintaining Unity and Access): This is a high school youth conference at UCLA.

  • NHPI Youth Health and Fitness Day: This event provides free workouts/nutrition workshops/health screenings for PI youth.

UCLA PISA has a strong history of student activism. What are some of the highlights?

We have a very rich history in student advocacy. PI students advocated for the Diversity Requirement that is now enforced for every student at UCLA. We were part of a referendum (Social Justice Referendum) that funded outreach projects (like PIER) and retention projects for students of color. We recently protested at the UC regents meeting against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. We are currently working on creating a department for Pacific Island studies within the Asian American Studies Department that is pending approval.

How did you get involved with PISA and what has been your involvement over the years?

I got involved my senior year in high school through PISA's Freshmen Admit Weekend in 2015. After being admitted to UCLA, I was invited by PISA to stay the weekend on campus for their admit program. In my freshmen year, I volunteered at mostly all events and worked on the Social Justice Referendum campaign along with PISA leadership.

My second year, I became Vice President, but the President had stepped down during the Fall, so I have held the President role from my second year up until now, my fourth year.

My third year, I worked closely to plan IMUA and personally drove out to the Inland Empire to bring students to attend. I helped organize the PI graduation and applied on behalf of PISA to various conferences. I was able to bring 8 PI students to New York for the Beyond the Bars Conference at Columbia University, where we facilitated a workshop on PI's and incarceration. I was also able to fund 10 PI students to present a workshop at the NASPA conference in O'ahu, HI. I was also 1 of 6 PI students who attended and presented at APAHE in Oakland, CA for 2 years. Each of these conference trips were free for all students (lodging, transportation, meals, etc), because most of PISA students comes from low income backgrounds.

I also began the Protect Mauna Kea Campaign at UCLA this year (2019) to protect Native Hawaiian lands and rights.

How has PISA evolved since you first joined your freshman year?

Something I have been really proud of in my role as President is seeing the drastic increase of members since my freshmen year; then, there were about 12 students and today we have about 60 general body members as a result of successful community and cross-community building.

What is a common misconception about the PISA program?

Many people tend to think of PI spaces as exclusive to PIs, but PISA's history would have never been possible without our allies. While our general body is majority PI, we are inclusive of various communities such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latin@s, African Americans. There are actually some in our board who commit to PISA, because they resonate with our cause.

I am so proud of the diversity and inclusivity that UCLA PISA represents, because there is power in numbers and cross-community collaboration. It's been a lot over the years, but I truly love what PISA stands for and the students who have become my family - that's why I do it. 

Why is it important to have Pacific Islander student groups on campuses?

There has always been such a small number of us in higher education all across the country. Across all UC's, we are less than 1% of students (0.02%). Because of this, it's imperative that we build community so that we can empower each other. It's because of community-building in PI student orgs like PISA that we are stronger and able to address common issues like access to higher education, retention, health disparities, etc.

Student organizations like PISA are the reason why the numbers of Pacific Islanders are matriculating into four year universities like UCLA. Our outreach project PIER is a direct pipeline to help our people get into higher education. When HS students see PI college students working together in solidarity, they see us as role models, which is how I viewed PISA my senior year in HS. That was all the motivation I needed to attend UCLA-- because I saw someone like me there.

PI student organizations need to exist because they are the ones that make proactive change in higher ed institutions, that historically were not made for people of color. Through PI students orgs like PISA, we are not just some members of a social club - we are activists, we are fostering student success, and we are developing and becoming leaders in our communities. 

Why do you encourage PI students to participate in PI student groups?

I understand many PI college students feel that joining PI orgs like PISA takes too much of their time, and especially too much time away from their studies/academics. While many PI students, like myself, have experienced academic hardship such as academic probation and subject to dismissal, it is PISA that has helped each of us get out of and get better from our situations. We are each other's resources, and I believe every PI student that has fallen short academically can attest to this.

I became much more disciplined and organized becoming a student leader in PISA and it helped me discover my real passions and career choices. I highly encourage PI students to get involved in PI organizations or groups, because it provides the experiences and skills that people need in the real world and in the work force-- it teaches you how to network, work in a team, coordinate programs, be a team leader, write grants/proposals, and many other valuable things that can be used beyond higher ed life.

I find that many students who were involved in UCLA PISA become very successful post graduation. I know PISA alumni who are getting their PhD's, MDs, etc. For myself, I owe my acceptance to grad school in the Fall to PISA. My application weighed heavily on my involvement in UCLA PISA, and I truly believe that my experiences there helped me get here. Getting good grades is a great accomplishment for a short amount of time, but the work and investment into your community is a kind of reward and fulfilling feeling that never goes away. 

How can we support UCLA PISA?

  • Follow us: on Instagram @ucla_pisa and on Facebook: facebook.com/uclapisa. On each platform, we post flyers of all our events and advocacy efforts. We would love if the community could help spread the word by sharing our posts so that our people may receive the necessary resources.

  • Collaborate with us: Community members can also support by reaching out to us for collaboration efforts by emailing us at uclapisa@gmail.com.

  • Attend our programs: Last but not least, community members can support our programs by attending our annual events. The success of our events is contingent on the number of guests/service recipients we have. In order to make our events larger and more successful each year, we must constantly prove to the university that there is a need for our programs to exist. All of our events are family and always free.

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