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Student Spotlight

Far from Home

Originally from the lush islands of Tonga, Malissa Fifita believes there are multiple pathways to personal success. A student in the master of public administration program at the BYU Marriott School of Business, Fifita navigates life’s everchanging course by drawing strength from her family, her culture, and her determination to serve others.

A woman with a flower in her hair.
MPA student Malissa Fifita wears a flower in her hair to remind her of home.
Photo courtesy of Malissa Fifita.

Fifita graduated from BYU–Hawaii with a degree in political science. “My only goal was finishing undergrad and going to law school,” she says. But a mentor who held degrees in both law and public administration nudged Fifita in a different direction.

“Being around people—it's my strength. It’s my comfortable area,” Fifita says. She realized that an MPA would allow her tap into her people skills and her problem-solving skills. “It’s not good to say a problem is fun,” Fifita says, “but solving the problem is fun.”

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic meant the classes would probably be virtual, Fifita applied and was accepted to BYU Marriott’s MPA program.

But plans changed when Fifita became pregnant and her extended family moved to California. Newly graduated from BYU–Hawaii, Fifita and her husband decided to move to California and defer the MPA program. Finding a job was extremely difficult for Fifita, but she kept an open mind and landed an essential worker position at ChanceLight Education—a school for students ages 5 to 21 with autism disorders, special needs, and behavior challenges.

A group of special needs students with their teachers.
Fifita on her last day at ChanceLight Education.
Photo courtesy of Malissa Fifita.

“I do not have any background in dealing with autism or working with special needs kids. Honestly, I just went in with the mindset—you need money.” But within two weeks, she realized, “I was in love with my job. I was excited every morning to go to work.” Over the next year and half, Fifita says, “I learned more from the students than they did from me.”

Fifita closed out her chapter at ChanceLight, trading the sea for snowcapped peaks and BYU Marriott. Now immersed in the MPA program, she finds that her positivity and her love for people make her feel right at home. “The positiveness of the program really drew me in,” she says. “What I love about the program is the support that we have from our professors, the relationships we have with our cohort, and the people I’m around.”

As she adjusts to school, stress, and snow, Fifita keeps the Tongan heritage in her heart by tucking a flower behind her ear each day. “This is like our sun,” Fifita says of her flower. “We wear it in our hair. It’s something I identify with. It’s in our culture.”

A Polynesian couple with their young daughter.
Fifita with her biggest supporters—her husband and daughter.
Photo courtesy of Malissa Fifita.

Fifita misses her family in Tonga and California, but her husband and daughter motivate her to work hard. “I go home and open the door, and the first thing I see is my daughter, and she’s jumping and calling ‘Mommy,’” Fifita says. “I’m reenergized.”

Although Fifita feels overwhelmed and exhausted at times, her husband cheers her on. “We didn’t leave California to come this far just for you to give up,” he reminds her. “You can do this.” Fifita agrees and adds to his sentiment: “We can do it. We are made for greater things.”

And she hasn’t given up on continuing on to law school after her MPA. “It’s still a dream,” she says. “It’s still a goal.”
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Written by Alice Gubler and Shannon Keeley

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