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Samoan Fulbright scholar graduates, ready to come home

Fulbright scholar Sita Leota has graduated with a master’s degree in sustainable international development from Brandeis University in Boston, Massachusetts.

She is preparing to make the long, fraught journey home to Samoa after two years abroad, and said she is hoping to help improve Samoa’s civic participation and education when she does. 

“Democracy requires participation, and that can only happen when we give people the tools for engagement,” she told the Samoa Observer.

“Barriers, whether they be through language or access, often deter people from participating fully.”

While at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Ms. Leota studied every aspect of development there is, including the nuances of gender, the environment and economics. Environment became a particular focus for her too.

She said Samoa’s sustainable development has to fix the systems that “keep people poor” on the way to improving life for everyone.

“Sustainable development is most often associated with just the environment, but for me in the simplest terms it is about ensuring that people, and particularly our most vulnerable and marginalized, have access to the services they need, that we address the systems of inequality and injustice that keep people poor and that we are not contributing to the destruction of the environment on our way to development.”

It also means increasing access to participation in the country’s democracy, through civic education and taking the work of Parliament to the people.

While at Brandeis, Ms. Leota designed a mock website alerting people to new bills tabled in Parliament and to take them through the legislative process.

“Looking back, I’m glad that was my focus coming in as it is relevant now in the current political discourse on the Bills relating to the roles of the Lands and Titles Court and the Supreme Court,” she said, adding that it may be relevant to publish that work soon. 

It wasn’t all classroom based study at Brandeis. While in Boston, Ms. Leota took every opportunity to see American democracy in action. 

She attended the Women’s March in Boston, the review of the S.A.M.O.A. Pathway at the United Nations Headquarters in New York (where she listened to Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi speak) and even travelled to New Hampshire in February to meet Senator Bernie Sanders in person.

Ms. Leota, the former Audit Director of the Samoa Audit Office, spent a decade working in Government finances, and a great deal of that time translating public accounts and audit reports into everyday language for policymakers and parliamentarians to sink their teeth into. 

She said doing that meant more people could actually engage in policies, even if they aren’t specialist accountants, expanding the scope of who gets to sit at the discussion table.

The graduate, who hails from Siumu, Avao, Salamumu, Safotu and Apia, submitted her Master’s thesis on the changing face of geopolitics in the Pacific, and studied how the advances of China into the region affected how New Zealand and Australia had to adapt.

This situation has meant that Samoa needs to be more serious about holding development partners accountable on climate change, she said, especially “in a time when the US is disengaging from climate agreements while our small island developing states grapple with the extreme and devastating effects of climate change.”

She said climate change means the Pacific voice needs to be at the centre of any development assistance, and that local perspective and knowledge needs to be incorporated into projects to work.

But as an accountant by profession, her courses on the environment and climate change in development meant a lot of relearning which questions to ask.

“I have had to refocus my initial instinct to always ask who’s paying and how much will it cost to how will people and the surrounding environment from the soil to the birds to the flowers be affected when a bridge is built?”

The tail-end of Ms. Leota’s stay in the United States has been mired by the global coronavirus pandemic. Her graduation went virtual and Massachusetts has been under stay-at-home orders since March. 

Nowadays, she only leaves the house when necessary, and surgical masks are a norm on every face.

“It’s been sad though to see many local businesses close – some for good, and I’ve tried to help by supporting the stores that are open for delivery. In our local park, makeshift tents have been put up for the homeless to stay during the pandemic.

“Massachusetts is in the process of reopening and I think we’ve all kind of eased into it knowing this virus will be around for a while and finding way to learn how to live with it.”

“The uncertainty has been another factor and not knowing when exactly it is that I’ll be home but there’s been a lot of assistance from the Samoa Embassy in New York and the Samoa Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade all working to get Samoans home.”

Before her Master’s degree, Ms. Leota had a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce and Administration from Victoria University of Wellington and is a chartered accountant and certified fraud examiner.

Ms. Leota travelled to Brandeis University after earning the 2018 J William Fulbright Foreign Student Scholarship. It is a highly competitive programme that was started in 1946. 

Alumni include 37 people who went on to become the head of state or government of their respective country, including the current presidents of Guyana, Croatia and Costa Rica.

A further 88 Fulbright alumni have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes and 60 have won Nobel Prizes, including writer Sylvia Plath.

“Just to be counted in that company speaks volumes about the award,” Ms. Leota said.

“I recommend it to anyone who would like the opportunity to live and study in the United States, especially during this time.”

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