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This Pacific Islander says, “It takes an island for higher education attainment”

Applying to college was everything I looked forward to, but also feared. I did not think my story and background mattered, and with the lack of higher education resources from my community in the Northern Mariana Islands, I did not feel fully equipped to submit a successful college application. When I was not in school, my grandparents would bring me to church, the beach, or to the farm. It is often quiet in the village, but when friends and family gathered for a BBQ, laughter and narrations of old stories filled the air. Many people live paycheck to paycheck, doing what is best for their family while also making sure that they are there for each other. Regardless of these anxieties and uncertainties, I made a point to work hard throughout school, and reminded myself that, “you get what you put in.” My grandparents emphasized the importance of education to their grandchildren from a very young age. They did not have the opportunity to attend college and supported their family through farming and eventually opening a few small businesses. They had us grandchildren take on shifts at the family convenience store or tend to the livestock. I feel blessed to have been surrounded by their unwavering work ethic, which I try to emulate in my everyday life. Because of my upbringing, I was never afraid to take on a task that seemed challenging or impossible to accomplish, and that’s exactly how college seemed at some points. I did not think others would find my struggle, my story, inspiring. However, I continued to strive to maintain a positive mind set and routine while juggling extracurricular activities, home responsibilities that come with living in a single parent household, and my academics.

I reached out to my mentors at school and older cousins in my family who went to college to help guide me throughout the scholarship and college application process. I spent many months writing drafts for the several colleges and scholarships that I applied to, and was fortunate to receive feedback from my mentors and family, especially my Uncle John, Auntie Mona, and cousin Dencio. If there’s anything I learned about the process, it’s that while you are doing the bulk of the work writing your story, having conversations with people close to you can help formulate and strengthen your essay. It was difficult and awkward writing about myself, but the conversations with my family helped fill in the blanks of my story that I overlooked. Although it was difficult, I spent time writing about the hardships of growing up in a single parent household, financially supporting myself, maintaining multiple jobs, and serving my community all the while upholding high academic performance. Research shows that students from single parent households are less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than those from two-parent families; however, growing up in this environment taught me to be a diligent student and to be my own advocate. In the end, all my hard work paid off, and I was admitted into my primary choice, UC Berkeley, where I continue to engage the community and conduct news reporting, on full ride scholarship from the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, which aims to promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for outstanding minority students with significant financial need to reach their highest potential.

After my admittance, I finally felt that my story mattered and in turn, I strive to create a pathway for Pacific Islanders after me to be heard and hopefully have greater access to resources that will give them access to the quality education they deserve and aspire to achieve. My advice to fellow students is to reach out to your teachers, closest friends, and family members so that they can help you write a compelling personal essay that not only helps grants you admission to the college of your choice, but awards you scholarships to fund your academic journey. Remember that “you get what you put in.” While the application process is complex, if you pour your heart into your application neither you nor your readers will be disappointed as you’ve presented your true self to the university or scholarship program. No matter where you come from, your story is invaluable. Keep sharing your journey and what you’re passionate about with others. It matters! There’s no shame in seeking assistance or advice. I get tutored at my school’s writing center and love it! As a student you need to prioritize your academic success so don’t be afraid to seek out resources to help you achieve your goals.  Above all, always remember that your story matters and that it takes an island to raise a child, you aren’t expected to navigate through higher education on your own.


Thomas Manglona is a native Chamorro from the island of Rota, Northern Mariana Islands, which is a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific. He is a Gates Millennium Scholar and undergraduate at UC Berkeley, where he plans to double major in Media Studies and Rhetoric with a Minor in Journalism. Thomas started writing news reports for his island on his blog when we was in middle school and his passion for journalism has since flourished, leading him to work for several print publications and, more recently, his local ABC7 news station as an on-camera correspondent covering the three branches of government, education, and community issues. He is a proud Pacific Islander and news junkie who is passionate about diversity and fair representation in the media. He hopes to anchor his own news show on his home island one day.

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