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Servant leadership in action: Vai Semisi-Tupou
By Grace Jackson
Finding scholarships for students in need, advocating for higher education for minorities, and improving lives of Pacific Americans are key factors that motivate Vaivao “Vai” Semisi-Tupou to action on a daily basis.
Seeing the personal struggles of Pacific Islanders, he vowed to be part of the solution and became a seminary teacher and counselor. He also served in the ministry for more than 30 years.
“We need to learn and understand how to achieve and excel in the dominant society, and also find what areas offer the greatest opportunity to bring other Pacific Americans into the system,” Vai said.
By improving access to education, medical and social resources, Vai witnessed the immediate effect of his efforts. “It’s important for me to serve something greater than the self,” said Vai. “I hope I have helped even one student or one person improve their life. And if I have, then I’ve been successful.”
Vai grew up a Samoan in New Zealand and Hawai’i, and received a certificate of excellence from the Pacific American Leadership Institute in Hawaii. He earned a Master of Arts in Religion and Ethics from The School of Theology at Claremont, California, and earned another Master of Arts in Management from Hawaii Pacific University.
As a member of the Pacific Islander community, Vai’s philosophy in leading others is that of servant leadership, which emphasizes that “leaders be attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them” (Northouse, 2015).
A leader who serves others
Northouse (2015) states that “servant leaders put followers first, empower them, and help them develop their full personal capacities.” And Vai wholeheartedly agrees with this approach.
“The most valuable asset of being a leader is honesty and integrity,” said Vai. “Leaders must be committed to the personal growth of others. In the pastor-congregational model, serving people calls for a holistic approach, the total being, spiritual and physical,” Vai wrote in his application statement.
In addition to his advocacy work, Vai consults for the Gates Millennium Scholarships for Minorities, an initiative that provides opportunities for students of color to reach their highest potential. Also, he has been a consultant and reader for the Asia & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF).
For Vai, being part of the solution means actively participating within his community. He serves on various boards and government commissions, such as the City of Kent Cultural Communities Board and the Northwest Association of Pacific Americans (NAPA). He was Vice President Washington for The Pacific American Foundation.
And now, a doctoral student
He chose CityU instead of Stanford’s religious program where he was also accepted because of the connection he made with CityU’s professors, and that CityU’s environment had more of a family feel to it. He was also intrigued by the “applied” aspect of leadership.
“Through one’s own education and by gaining knowledge and experience, and by providing access to education for those less fortunate, the world can be a better place,” Vai wrote.
Speaking out for diversity
Vai is passionate about building the capacity of leaders from underrepresented areas of the Pacific Islands. “We live in a multicultural world where diversity comes in many forms – one’s ability, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation.”
“Leaders have a responsibility to ensure the inclusion of diversity in their organizations, and to respect the diversity of those around them,” Vai wrote. “You have to be a good listener and understand others’ feelings and perspective. Differences are to be respected and embraced.”
Changing the world through education
At the end of the day, Vai is optimistic about the changes that have been made for Pacific Islanders. After he graduates with a doctoral degree in educational leadership next June, he hopes to obtain a teaching post at a college and give back to students what he has learned. “Maybe we can’t change the world,” said Vai, “but if one person’s life has improved through education, then our purpose has been served.”
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications. 225.