SALT LAKE CITY — Keizzya Lee wasn’t sure there were words that could describe how she felt after taking the ACT test for the first time.
“I was at a loss for words,” she told several hundred people gathered in the Salt Palace ballroom for the Fourth Annual Ofa Ngata College Preparation Fund Luau Thursday night.
“After all, how does one describe the confidence-breaking, self-esteem destroying, self-worth crushing, torture that was my ACT experience.”
The East High graduate, then a junior, knew immediately that it had been a disaster.
“Getting the scores in the mail only made it worse,” she said. “I felt like I could hear the doors to college slamming shut.”
Lee shared her story with those at the luau so they could understand how something as simple as access to test preparation classes and materials can change the course of a life.
It is an effort started by Ofa Ngata when she realized that her son, Haloti, wasn’t alone in struggling to get scores on the college entrance exam that would allow him to gain admission to the universities offering him football scholarships.
“I failed the ACT two or three times,” the five-time pro-bowler and Highland High alum said in a video explaining the foundation’s work. “My mom realized there were other kids who didn’t have the money for preparation classes or materials.”
So while her son went on to have a successful football career at Oregon, she created a foundation that would raise money to help students be better prepared for exams like the ACT.
Ofa Ngata died a few years later, in 2006, from complications connected to diabetes.
Ngata, who just signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, said he looks forward to the fundraising luau in his hometown because it allows him to combine his culture with his charity endeavors.
Since its creation, the Haloti Ngata Family Foundation, which includes the Ofa Ngata College Preparation Fund, has helped 600 students in three school districts in two different states.
Bonneville School District received $6,000 Thursday night while Granite District accepted $20,000. The Salt Lake District was given a check for $30,000.
The evening also featured some impressive sports figures, including former Utah Jazz coach Frank Layden, who was honored, and golfer Tony Finau, who was the event’s keynote speaker.
It even featured Ngata dancing and performing on Tongan drums.
But the most poignant moment of the night was Lee’s account of how the ACT prep classes at East High, funded by the foundation, helped her overcome what seemed like certain failure.
Lee said she felt like a failure and that her confidence was so destroyed after taking the test in the fall of her junior year, that she contemplated not even taking it again.
After encouragement from her parents, she learned about East High's after-school, college-test prep class and reluctantly signed up.
“As a child, my family struggled financially,” she said. “Sometimes my family was homeless. Picking up in the middle of the term made learning hard.”
She said by the time she enrolled at East as a junior she carried with her a “sense of failure.”
The class changed her perception of herself and it allowed her to improve her scores and earn acceptance to Weber State.Comment on this story
“I am the first in my family to attend college,” she said, breaking down in tears. “College is not just for me, it’s fulfilling the dream of my entire family.”
She said that she couldn’t have imagined the reality she is living now, even just two years ago.
Ngata and his wife, Christina, were deeply moved by Lee’s story.
“We were touched to the core by Keizzya’s words,” Ngata said. “She’s exactly the type of student we’re looking to help in this program. We look forward to seeing where her career takes her.”