Director of Mana at College of San Mateo, Finausina T. Tovo | Validating Oceania Student Voices in Higher Education


Finausina Tovo talks about her transition from student-athlete to scholar, the importance of giving Pacific Islanders a voice in higher education and the Mana program’s effect on Pacific scholars. Using her research in California Community Colleges, she hopes to empower more students to pursue all their educational options and demand community at their school.

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Tell us about your background and your high school experience.

While I am Tongan and Samoan, I identify as Polynesian and mostly Tongan. I was born and raised in East Palo Alto by a single parent and attended a predominantly white high school.

I was like all the other students, just trying to get by. While I was a mediocre high school student who wasn’t interested in the school curriculum, I was particularly passionate about sports and any programming around leadership and community-building. I played 3 sports: basketball, volleyball and track.

I hated school and only cared because of sports. My coaches were motivating, but that wasn’t the case in the classrooms. If it weren’t for sports and me joining leadership teams, I would have joined most of my friends at the continuation school.

Even though we won our first Women’s Basketball CCS Division 1 title and I was named Prom Queen, by the end of high school, I just wanted to pass English to graduate.

How was your transition to community college?

I only played half a season of basketball, and although I had aspirations to be the best basketball player in the game, I failed most of my classes (except Basketball lol) and was faced with telling my mom that I was on “academic probation” knowing that she had paid for my tuition, books and new car to ensure my college success. I only had one job: go to school. She also invested in my athletics camps, AAUs, Club Volleyball, but she said, no money is wasted when I complete college.

When I was an athlete, I thought I was the sh*t, and the moment I quit, people stopped caring about me. It was hard transitioning out of the athlete mentality, but I did it. I didn’t do it on my own, and I vowed that if anyone in my family wanted to go to college, they wouldn’t go through the same isolation that I felt while navigating my academic experience. Looking back, I really appreciate my experience in community college. I began prioritizing my education. Inspired and motivated by my mom, I am now an educational resource for our Oceania community.

I eventually transferred from Foothill to UC Riverside. It was there that I first witnessed a diverse faculty and student population. Most of my teachers were people of color, women, black instructors who were amazing teachers and who sparked my interest in social justice and activism. I stumbled into Workers Warehouse United, through my Sociology class - taught by Dr. Scott Brooks. This was the first time I witnessed the coordination and organization of the LatinX community leaders. They were working with the warehouse workers of Walmart who were enduring horrible working conditions. I mean, you don’t walk away from that experience the same. After I graduated from UC Riverside, I came back to East Palo Alto with a different perception and desire to serve my community through academics.

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What was your first job out of school?

My first job out of UC Riverside was in Admissions and Records at Foothill College. From their support and leadership, I got a permanent position at CSM. I loved working in Admissions under Dr. Villareal’s leadership. I was at the frontline of college admissions and could answer important questions for my community members interested in higher education. Because of this, I treated every student who walked in as part of my community. Additionally, I was grateful for this position, because it allowed me to recruit and guide Pacific Islander high school students. Dr. Villareal introduced me to Malissa Netane, of Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC), in which I first was exposed to the Mana Conference, a high school conference for high school Polynesian students providing intensive resources to high school students about careers and college pathways.

The Mana Conference was really what “sparked” my interest in community colleges and possible resources that come with CSM. I’m grateful to leaders like Malissa, Keisarina and Brittany, who are now family to me. Involving my students at CSM with high school students showed me how powerful the student voice really is when advocating for resources. I wanted to do more. I felt like I could do more.

Inspired by Black Graduation at UC Riverside, I helped coordinate a “Polynesian Club Graduation”, and named it “Poly Grad” to acknowledge degree completion, transfers and academic scholarships of the Pacific Islander community at CSM. After I completed my Master’s, the Student Equity 2014 invested in the Mana Program Proposal. Poly Grad then turned into Mana Graduation.

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Tell us about Mana at College of San Mateo.

Mana is an Ethnic-Learning Community that provides an intensive support environment for all students, and it centers on the Pacific Islander Scholarship Praxis. Essentially, it acts as a framework for institutions to better serve PI students by centering our Pacific identities as the drivers of academic success. We need California Community Colleges to reassess current practices that are antithetical to Pacific cultures which contributes to why Pacific Islander students choose family over school, every time. Components of the Mana program are now being modeled at Mira Costa Community College, Mana Program in San Diego, El Camino CC Mana Program in Los Angeles, and Chabot College Nesians Unite Student Organization in Hayward. 

Conceptually speaking, the program is built into 3 aspects: culture, identity and the role of western education (or the “process of schooling”). Understanding the 3 aspects will weave and sustain their aspirations as an American, without sacrificing their heritage. It is my job, to then share my experiences and conversations discussed in research around alternative ways of learning and doing it together. The Mana Program provides direct services to students, professional development workshops for staff and faculty, and campus engagement activities for the Pacific Islander community.

This program is flexible and works with many key stakeholders - institutions, communities, students, and academic departments that are interested in supporting Pacific Islander students. We are now focusing on telling our story through data. The newest component to the program is “research justice” where we use research to reroute the process of how we, as a Community College Institution, are serving our student populations. Thankfully, the current trends of equity and social justice have provided courageous opportunities for communities like mine to wake up and do something.

What do you think about Pacific Islanders being lumped in the API (Asian Pacific Islander) category?

In Community Colleges, we are impacted by the API category in identifying positive student outcomes within our population. Federal and State funding depends on categorical labels to help facilitate financial resources into communities. The problem is that the PI culture is very unique and the PI community is still very much connected to their ancestral ties to the Pacific. Because of this, our needs are different from needs of underrepresented Asian communities that are, also, often not visible within the diverse community of the Asian population.

When providing equitable support for all our students, we have to understand that not only are we ignoring the underrepresented populations under this designation, but we are limiting resources therefore further marginalizing every community.

I am not only advocating for the need to separate PI from the API designation. We also need to disaggregate the Asian category to reflect the diverse population it represents. Once we disaggregate this category, we will see the beautiful diversity that exists and acknowledge the rich contributions that each community can have on American education.

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

You do belong in college. You can do it for your family. You can do both. The first thing you have to accept is that you cannot do it alone — no matter what this capitalist/individualistic society tells you.  

I encourage you to seek the history of your family before you graduate high school. You will realize that scholars were around you all along, praying for your journey.