Program Assistant, TRiO Upward Bound Program
Associate of Arts, General Program ’11
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska & Haveluloto, Tongatapu, Tonga
Fun Fact: She has a trace of royal blood in her veins—Kato’s grandfather, Sione Tupou Nunu ‘A Ikavale Vea, is a second cousin to the late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV
You know that upbeat reggae song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin? If we could choose a theme song for Kato Ha’unga, without question, that would be the one. She radiates an aura of positive energy wherever she goes.
Kato (short for Kato-Kakala) was born in Anchorage on Mother’s Day, May 10, 1983, to her two Tongan parents. Her parents divorced before Kato turned 1, at which point her grandmother, Halapo’uli-Va’ati Kaufusi, and her uncle, Latiume Kaufusi, happily offered to raise Kato in her family’s native country so that she could be immersed in the Tongan culture.
“They raised me like their little princess,” says Kato. Kato’s grandmother has four sisters—the “Golden Girls,” she calls them—who were also a big part of her childhood.
Tonga, the last remaining kingdom in the South Pacific, is home to just over 104,000 people and is made up of 176 islands, 52 of which are inhabited. Kato grew up on the island of Tongatapu in the small village of Haveluloto (pop. ~2,000).
After graduating from high school, Kato’s grandmother encouraged her to spread her wings and pursue a higher education off the island. “She wanted me to go to America and learn how to stand on my own two feet,” Kato says.
So Kato’s mother—who remarried and had three additional children—invited her to return to her birthplace and attend the University of Alaska Anchorage. “It was good to come back because I got to know my mom, whom I didn’t know for the first 17 years of my life.”
When it came time for Kato to start her UAA classes, her mother dropped her off on campus to meet a friend of hers, Vara Allen-Jones, UAA’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic and Multicultural Student Services. “I had no idea what to do; I was crying because I’d never been to a university and I missed my grandmother a lot,” Kato says. Vara showed her the ropes of UAA and continues to be a mentor to Kato to this day.
Kato got a job at Walmart stocking shelves before Vara invited her to apply for a student worker position at UAA. She got a job as the receptionist for AHAINA Student Programs (AHAINA stands for African-American, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, International, Native American). Now, 12 years later, Kato works in the same office as the program assistant for the TRiO Upward Bound Program, a federally funded program that helps first generation, low-income and disabled students pursue their dreams of a college education.
Kato stays busy off campus, too, where she volunteers with many community organizations as a proud representative of Tonga. She is a board member for the Polynesian Association of Alaska and Bridge Builders Anchorage, and is also involved with the Youth Young-Adult Empowered Achievers.
She explains that she hadn’t experienced racism before moving to the States. “In Tonga, we treat others as our honorable guests,” she says. She advocates against discrimination every day, in her job and in her volunteer activities.
Kato recently led a project for Bridge Builders called the “Meet the World Passport,” a publication that showcases tidbits of information about the many ethnic groups that call Anchorage home. She says that 90 languages are spoken by Anchorage School District students, with the five most common being Spanish, Hmong, Samoan, Filipino and Yup’ik. “We should know who these people are,” she says.
For her interest in equality and ethnic diversity, Kato was chosen as one of only three Anchorage community members to be a part of a U.S. Department of Justice racial profiling project, and she is also involved with the Anchorage Community Police Relations Task Force.
Kato’s background, education and experiences make her a leader, not only in Anchorage, but also among her Tongan community back home.
“When I go back home, it’s like I’m a role model for all these youth,” she says. “My whole village—my whole church—acknowledges me. Everything I learn here [at UAA], I take home with me. Kids follow me for knowledge. Education has sharpened my life and has equipped me to be the person I am today.”
When Kato heard that a devastating tsunami had hit Tonga in September 2009, she reached out to her family but was unable to contact anyone immediately. Finally, a day later, she connected with her cousin and uncle. “All they kept talking about was that all of their books were wet, ruined—not that anyone had died,” Kato said. “My cousin asked me if I could send them some books.”
That one small request has snowballed into something much larger now, and Kato is working to open a public library in Tonga. “I realized that Tonga doesn’t have a public library,” she says, “and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to start a little library.’”
For her job at UAA, Kato would visit the UAA Campus Bookstore and General Support Services to deliver her department’s mail. On one of her visits, the bookstore was giving away some free books, so she began her library collection then with four books. Now, thanks to the support of many organizations and individuals, Kato has collected over 35,000 books for her library.
As you can imagine, 35,000 books take up a lot of space. Kato has spent thousands of dollars of her own money to pay for the storage of the books and she’s currently working to raise the necessary funds—about $10,000—to ship the library to Tonga.
The library, which Kato named the Northern Lights Library, will be housed in a community hall on Tonga’s Ha’apai Island. She chose this location because it’s centrally located, making it easier for residents of Tonga’s other islands to access the library. Kato eventually plans to open branches of the library on more islands.
“I dream big,” she says. “A lot of people doubt the work I do, but I have high hopes.” She says she has a 20-year vision for the library, which includes the eventual development of an educational institution.
In what little spare time she has leftover from her many projects and activities, Kato loves to dance, especially Polynesian dance. “When I dance, all those memories from Tonga come back, like I’m back home. Every hand movement tells a story.” She’s also taken up painting at UAA and hopes to hang her artwork in the Northern Lights Library when it opens. And if that all wasn’t enough, she occasionally dog-sits 12 Saluki hound dogs!
Kato’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious. “Some people think I drink a lot of energy drinks and coffee,” she says with a smile, “but every day I’m happy, grateful. I count my blessings every day.”
Kato, the positive force that she is, has plenty of motivational words to share with those around her. “I do everything with a big smile, because when I smile the world will smile back at me. Everything is possible when you put your mind to it and be positive.”
During her 12 years at UAA as an employee and student, Kato has had the opportunity to explore many of her interests. She earned an Associate of Arts degree in 2011 and is currently pursuing dual degrees in economics and art. Always one to dream big, Kato hopes to someday become her native country’s first Tongan female judge, or maybe a doctor.
“My uncle told me that he had envisioned one day calling me Dr. Kato, and that has always been in the back of my mind. To be Tonga’s first Tongan judge, and first female judge, would be awesome,” she says.
After earning her bachelor’s degree from UAA in about two years, Kato plans to go on to study law. “It’s going to take a long time, but I will stick with it—education will always be with me.”
Yep, we certainly think that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is the perfect theme song for Kato Ha’unga.