Full Circle

by Bethany Wagner ’14

Diana Faatai, Ed.D. ’16, remembers sitting in her eighth-grade classroom in Wilmington, California, as her fellow students recounted their weekends. Some went bowling, some saw movies, but Faatai helped her father prepare and cook a pig in the backyard for her church family’s traditional Samoan feast.

“I often felt I lived a double life,” said Faatai, the daughter of American Samoan immigrants. She attended school with other children, studying math and literature and playing sports. But at home, she lived immersed in the rich culture of the islands, speaking only the Samoan language, wearing traditional clothing, and following Samoan family dynamics of respect and obedience.

Most important, her parents set an example of a strong work ethic. Her father walked 10 miles every day to work at a car wash, and her mother labored long hours at a factory for less than a dollar an hour while pregnant with Faatai’s younger brother. Both held their children to a high standard in their schoolwork and instilled in them a philosophical approach to life summed up in three Samoan words: tu (stand), vaai (observe), and faalogo (listen and obey). “First, we stand up for our beliefs and for others,” Faatai said. “Second, we observe needs before they arise, coming up with proactive solutions. Finally, faalogo reminds us to listen for God’s voice and obey Him.” These simple but profound words guided Faatai through her education and into her career as a teacher and administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Faatai became the first in her family to attend college, studying English and secondary education. “After my first day of student teaching, I knew I had found my calling,” she said. “I saw I could make a difference, especially in inspiring underrepresented kids.” Years later, Faatai returned as a teacher to her alma mater, Carson Senior High School, where she started a chapter of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a program that expands students’ writing, critical thinking, teamwork, organization, and reading skills, also focusing on preparing underrepresented students for success in college and beyond. During the AVID awards ceremony that spring, officials announced the college-bound graduates. “I quietly counted each name called, noting with tears the number of students who would not have enrolled in a four-year university without the support they received,” she said.

After working for 12 years as a teacher, Faatai turned to impact education on a larger scale. Drawn by the school’s God First focus, she earned her Doctor of Education at Azusa Pacific University. “At APU, my professors supported me through prayer, encouraged me in my transition to administrative work, and truly reflected God’s love,” she said. With this support behind her, she followed God’s calling to Wilmington as assistant principal of the Banning Academy of Creative and Innovative Sciences, supporting teachers and students just a few blocks away from the factory where her mother once worked.

Today, Faatai’s work has come full circle as she transforms policies and classroom instruction practices throughout the same school district where she began her education journey. Her own son follows this legacy of empowering others, starting a nonprofit at 7 years old that provides shoes, clothing, and food to children and families in need in the Independent State of Samoa, Mexico, and Los Angeles.

Faatai desires for her son, as well as every student in her school district, to emerge a strong learner and critical thinker. “God created the mind, and we need to exercise that gift in our classrooms,” she said. Even in her work as assistant principal, the Samoan ideals of tu, vaai, and faalogo passed down by her father remain foremost in Faatai’s mind as she seeks to challenge, inspire, and empower the next generation of learners. “I want students to graduate with strong voices, prepared to defend their beliefs and stand for others.”

Bethany Wagner ’14 is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. [email protected]

Originally published in the Summer '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.