LAIE, Hawaii — Efforts to raise funds for educational needs in his home country of Tuvalu recently came back to bless Easter Niko with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
At the end of June, Niko, a recent graduate of Brigham Young University-Hawaii, traveled to Buckingham Palace where he received the 2016 Queen's Young Leader Award from Queen Elizabeth II.
"It was a fabulous experience," Niko said. "The highlight was definitely meeting the queen. I wasn't expecting her to be so personable, but she took time to ask about me, my project and the people of Tuvalu. She was really sweet."
Niko is one of many international students from BYU-Hawaii who are using their education and talents to bless their families and home countries. They want to make a difference in the world, and in the process they are also fulfilling the prophetic vision of the late LDS Church President David O. McKay, who in 1955 said: "From this school ... will go forth men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally."
BYU-Hawaii, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has an enrollment of about 2,700 students from more than 70 countries, making it one of the most ethnically diverse baccalaureate institutions in the United States, according to its communications department. Students such as Niko, Ghana natives Lillian Martino-Bradley and Prince Owusu, and New Zealand's Mare Pairamakararoariki serve to illustrate the many unique backgrounds and individuals stories at the university.
Chad Ford, BYU-Hawaii's director of the David O. McKay Department of Cultural Understanding, said he is inspired each day he comes to work because students are not focused on themselves. The school's slogan, "Enter to learn, go forth to serve," adequately describes the attitude of most students, Ford said.
"College can be a selfish experience but for so many kids here, it's not about them; it's about making a difference in the world. It's about making other people's lives better," Ford said. "Their attitude is 'What am I getting here in the classroom that will help me benefit my village, my family and make a difference in the world?' It’s a really cool place to be. I don’t know of another university that has quite that unique of a mission."
Pride of Tuvalu
Tuvalu is an independent island nation within the British Commonwealth. It's made up of nine small islands and has a population of about 12,000 people. Niko is one of them, and his education at BYU-Hawaii has opened doors of opportunity, he said.
During his freshman year, he worked as a tour guide at the Polynesian Cultural Center before leaving to serve a Mormon mission in the San Francisco Bay area. Before he departed, he was chosen for a special assignment. Because he spoke English well and had tour guide skills, he hosted a short visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton.
"They asked where I learned English, and I told them about BYU-Hawaii," Niko recalled. "'Isn't that a Mormon school? We know some good Mormon people,' they said. I told them if they are ever at the PCC, ask for me, I'd be their tour guide. They said, 'If you come to England, call us.'"
After his mission, Niko returned to BYU-Hawaii. While studying to become an accountant, he and a team of students raised more than $300,000 from private donors to improve the quality of education in Tuvalu. For his leadership and giving back to the community, Niko was chosen for receive one of the Queen's Young Leaders Awards. In addition to spending a week in England, Niko received a one-year online training course at Cambridge University, he said.
Niko recently married his sweetheart, Cindy, and moved to Utah to pursue a master's degree at the University of Utah. Grateful for the experiences that have taught him so much, Niko plans to continue tackling education problems in Tuvalu, he said.
Battling human trafficking
As a young child in Ghana, Martino-Bradley was adopted by a Mormon family from Heber City, Utah.
Born in 1996, Martino-Bradley’s mother died from childbirth complications, and she never knew her father. Her uncle was attempting to raise her, but it was a poor and bleak situation.
Hope for a better life came when the uncle met an LDS missionary couple serving in Ghana and they learned of Martino-Bradley’s plight. When the couple returned home, they told Tracy and Lois Martino about the malnourished little girl they feared would be sold into slavery if not rescued soon. The Martinos traveled to West Africa and adopted her.
Martino-Bradley had a happy life in Utah. She had many friends and excelled in school and sports, especially soccer, but she could not forget her roots. She wanted to fight child trafficking. This desire led her, then a teenager, to set up her own non-profit organization in 2012 called Fahodie for Friends. "Fahodie" is the Ghanaian word for "freedom."
After high school, Martino-Bradley accepted a soccer scholarship to BYU-Hawaii, where she was introduced to a field of study that aligned nicely with her foundation: peace-building and conflict resolution. Her foundation has helped 19 people as of June, she said.
Martino-Bradley's main motivation stems from her LDS faith, she said.
"We are supposed to serve and love each other to fulfill our potential and eternal purpose," Martino-Bradley said. "That’s what I hope I can do for people. I feel like it’s why I’m here."
She has learned to define success as helping one person at a time.
"Those small and simple things really come together to make an impact," said Martino-Bradley, who last year married a returned missionary who served in Ghana. "Collectively, as we each do what we can within our own circumstances, that’s what is going to make the difference and allow for peace in the world."
As a young teen in New Zealand, Pairamakararoariki observed that the best basketball players in his city often gathered for "chapel ball" at the LDS Church. Although he was the smallest player on the court at that time, Pairamakararoariki was honored to be invited and didn't miss a Friday for the next four years, even though the chapel was seven miles from his home.
After a night of "chapel ball," when he was 18 years old, a girl approached Pairamakararoariki and invited him to church meetings. He was curious to find out about this place he had been coming to for years and accepted the invitation. Seven months later, he was baptized. Two years after that, as the only member in his family (his sisters would later join), he embarked on a two-year Mormon mission to England.
Upon his return, Pairamakararoariki applied to BYU in Provo, but a series of events led him to BYU-Hawaii and his future wife, Hi'ilei, who had just returned from a mission at Temple Square. The couple are now expecting their first child this fall.
Mare Pairamakararoariki was accepted in the I-Work program and works part time at the Polynesian Cultural Center as a dancer in the Aotearoa Village. He typically gets around on a skateboard or a bicycle, although the couple did purchase a car for necessary trips to the doctor's office.
At times, Pairamakararoariki has felt inadequate as a college student, struggling to understand subjects such as biology, but he has appreciated learning at a school where spiritual and secular education are combined.
"It's a unique learning experience," Pairamakararoariki said. "I appreciate it and don't ever want to take it for granted."
"Our lives have really benefited from (BYU-Hawaii), and (education) will be a blessing for our future family," said Hi'ilei Pairamakararoariki, a native of Laie. "You really appreciate coming to a church school. It's affordable, a great education, a win-win. I wouldn’t trade it for anything."
Determined to make a difference
At age 9 or 10, Owusu was walking home from school when he was ambushed by a group of boys. One pushed him to the ground. Owusu landed awkwardly on his left arm and broke it badly. Because his parents were poor and didn't have insurance, the arm went untreated for a week and had to be amputated.
It's a painful memory, but the event changed Owusu's life for the better. His mother moved her son to a new school run by a man who also operated an orphanage so he could have a better education, he said.
The man's name was Abraham Kwuku Fokuo, and he became a friend and mentor to Owusu. He was also a Mormon and introduced Owusu to the LDS missionaries. In time, the one-armed young man joined the church, finished school and served a mission to the Ivory Coast against the wishes of his parents, he said.
At the end of his mission, Owusu said, he prayed for a way to open for him to get a job teaching at the Ghana Missionary Training Center and the kind of college education that would allow him to make a difference in people's lives. With the help of a friend, Owusu got the MTC job. Then the MTC mission president played a key role in Owusu being accepted into the I-Work program at BYU-Hawaii, where he has learned to thrive.
Owusu's dream is to return to Ghana and perhaps run a school and an orphanage, he said.
"I want to go back to Africa and help people who need help, especially those who have the potential and talent, but not the means to bring those talents out," Owusu said. "I want to go home and make a difference."
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