Tongan receives internship in the White House

Milika Leokona Tonga Hopoi, an American of Tongan descent, has been granted an internship in the White House. She is the only granddaughter of the late Reverend Sami  Fehoko Veikoso (Ha’afeva, Ha’apai) and the late Reverend Sione Fakapelea (Koulo, Ha’apai).  She is the only child of late Tevita Hopoi and Katokakala Fakapelea Kavapalu, who later re-married her step-father, the late Ofa Kavapalu.  She has two sisters,  Helen and Mele. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, she was educated at  Oregon State University. She had previously worked in US Senator Jeff Merkley’s office. Hopoi was offered the internship in January.

Interview with Hopoi.

Kaniva:  You have been offered the opportunity of taking an internship in the White House. Can you tell me more about that?

Hopoi: First and foremost, I’d like to give thanks to our Heavenly Father for the blessings he’s bestowed upon my family. I can’t stress enough how much I love what I get to do. Living in D.C., meeting new people and interning at the White House has been a thrill. Serving as an intern during the Obama Administration is an opportunity of a lifetime. The White House Internship Program is a great catalyst for young professionals interested in public service, government and public administration. Everyone here is brilliant, talented and dedicated to public service; it is truly something to strive towards.

Kaniva:  How did you feel when you were offered the internship?

Hopoi:  When I was offered the internship, I was in pure euphoria. I felt a great sense of fulfilment as I look back at my time as a leader at Oregon State University. All I could think about was how happy my family was going to be to hear the news. One person in particular came to mind, my dad Ofa. If he were here, he would have been the first person to congratulate me, and I know he would have helped me get settled in D.C. He was always keen on public service, whether for the Kingdom of Tonga or the United States; he said that it was a defining factor for young people to never forget where they come from and to give back every chance they have.

Kaniva:  What are your experiences of the White House?

Hopoi:  My experiences have been nothing short of amazing! Interning for the Policy Office in the Office of the First Lady is rewarding. For example, the other day I helped to escort more than 100 middle school and high school kids to the South Lawn for the France State Arrival. It was incredible to see their eyes light up with excitement as the President visited them. As I stood there, I could see big dreams coming to fruition. The students really appreciated the experience.  I’m so glad that I was able to be a part of that.  Working with students is a large part of my background.

 Since I started working here, the staff has been welcoming and supportive to get the new interns on their feet and running. The learning curve here is so big. It’s clear that my time at Oregon State University and with U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley’s office has been immensely helpful.   I am able to see some things that many people will not have the opportunity to experience.  I have come to recognise the fk’apa’apa with Tongan faifekaus, matapule, hou’eiki and royal family to be similar to the appropriate customs of greeting the First Lady and the First Family. There are a few exceptions, like the customs of bowing and kneeling to the royal family are not how we greet the First Lady, but still the homage and respect for her is strong. I’m very fortunate that my mother thought it necessary to raise my siblings and I in the traditional Tongan customs because it is with the knowledge of our Tongan traits of fk’apa’apa, loto ma’ulalo, tauhi vā and anga’ofa that I have been able to gain this blessing and experience.

Kaniva: How could you describe your internship to our Pacific communities in the US and elsewhere?

Hopoi: When people told me that they think I’m the first Tongan to be a White House Intern, I tell them there had to be someone else.  The truth is that it was not something I was aiming for. God has blessed my family, community and Tongan heritage. My mother and late stepdad were adamant proponents for our education, respect for others and using every opportunity available to reach our potential. My humble upbringing  keeps me grounded through my time here in the White House. When I talk to my mom, she reminds me to pray and give back to God, to give thanks to God for what He has given me. 

I’m proud to still tau’olunga for my family, give the Children’s sermon in my church, and speak Tongan with my family. With those attributes, interning here at the White House has been a remarkable experience  as I feel more Tongan-American than just American. There are times when I’m at my desk that I wish my grandparents can see this, to know that our kainga have made it to the White House.

One of the coolest things I get to do is use my name ‘Tonga’ in the White House. It was given to me as a term of endearment by my old rugby team. When my mom heard it at a rugby game, she loved it! She said that it’s nice to hear people say ‘Tonga’ because it reminds her of her home country. The first day I was at OSU,I chose to make the change. Since then I’ve been known as Tonga everywhere.

Kaniva: What does internship in the White House mean to you?

Hopoi: For me, personally, I hope that my story can inspire young Pacific Islander men and women to strive for excellence in their education, church, family and culture. I’m grateful I learned very young that every piece of my identity matters. It should be celebrated and appreciated.

 There’s a lecture that my mom use to give when I was growing up. It’s when I used to struggle in school and play sick to stay home. She would come home tired from a long day’s work and say with sadness: “It wasn’t easy for me to leave my home. You think it was easy to leave my parents thousands of miles away? Remember that I’m also a daughter of somebody and everyone needed me, but I left to give you a chance at something I never had. Make use of my journey and sacrifice; use your education to become whatever it is you dream because in Tonga, we weren’t as fortunate to have the opportunities you do. Every day I work so you can have a better life and if that means you chase your wild dreams then go for it. Just don’t ever give up, because I won’t stop working until you do reach your dreams.”

My mother is an amazing woman. This internship means I get to give her a dream that she never had. I hope one day to land an amazing position in my career where I’m able to let my mom retire. This internship is the beginning of many great things to come.

Image: Milika Leakona Tonga Hopoi. Courtesy of Milika Leakona Tonga Hopoi

Kaniva: What are some of the comments you received so far from families and friends when they knew you got this internship at the White House?

Hopoi: The reception from my family has been really warm, unbelievably joyous and overwhelmingly gracious. In short, my family and friends were beyond the moon when they heard I got this internship. On my last Sunday in Portland, I announced it to my church and they were just filled with tears of joy because of what this opportunity meant. For many who’ve come here searching for a better life than they had in Tonga, they are finally seeing the benefits of their struggle and hardships. People in my church told me that seeing one of their own go to the White House, the highest point of prestige in the United States, is one of the greatest memories they’ll always cherish.

When my mom’s brothers got a hold of the news, they couldn’t believe it. They called me just saying how happy they were and some of them were emotional. All they could muster up to say as was “Thank you for your obedience and this is the greatest gift I’ve have ever gotten. Who would have ever thought this was possible; only through God is anything possible.”  Then my family in Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and the States were talking about it so I would receive personal emails, voicemails and messages from people with uplifting stories, words of encouragement and wisdom. 

Kaniva: What is your goal for this internship?

Hopoi: My goal for this internship is to figure out a way to give back to my Pacific Islander and Tongan community, during and after my internship. Poverty is a very real issue in our community and it has been proven that in order to lift people out of poverty there has to be education in the community.  Before I came to DC, I connected with Alisi Tulua and Sefa Aina about getting connected to the Pacific Islander community in DC. I have a goal of bridging the gap between educational opportunities and Pacific Islander communities across the nation and I know DC is the place to get things moving. I am a firm believer in education and the doors that open up as you complete each homework assignment, course and degree. During my White House internship, I’ve been learning about access to college for high school students and I know first hand that this is a crucial point that many Pacific Islander youth miss or overlook as they are in high school.

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