Eva Ulukivaiola’s grandfather came to Alaska as a young fisherman from Tonga, a small island in the Pacific Islands, and fell in love with Alaska’s beauty. He eventually emigrated from his tropical homeland and brought his entire family to the far North.
Her grandfather settled his family into Anchorage life, where his daughter, Eva’s mother, met her father through mutual family friends. The two married and started a family of their own. Her mother’s wish for her three young daughters was that one day, they would all receive a university education. She encouraged Eva and her sisters to pursue and excel in academics, which Eva took to heart.
She took on extra after-school and summer school classes all through middle and high school, and during her junior year she enrolled in Alaska Pacific University’s (APU) Early Honors Program. She graduated from high school in three-and-a-half years and then dove head first into college the following fall.
Although Eva credits her mother and first-generation college status as motivation to doggedly pursue her education, she admits she couldn’t have gotten this far without the help from three of UAA’s TRIO Programs: Student Support Services (SSS), dedicated to assisting first-generation college students; Upward Bound (UB), a high school program offered at West, East, and Bartlett high schools to help students enroll in university; and the former Educational Talent Search (ETS), a program that assisted underrepresented populations achieve college success.
Through mentoring and support, these programs provided Eva with the tools to proudly walk across the stage in three-and-a-half years. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in economics at UAA’s fall commencement ceremony in December.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a year that I haven’t been in school,” Eva said. “I’ve always done summer school or some academic program when school was out.” She said she’s always been connected to UAA, even in high school through UAA’s UB program and that the university to her is home, and where she feels comfortable. But she admits that, despite her impressive collegiate accomplishments, there were times of insecurity and struggle.
For Eva, having programs and mentors to encourage her when the going got tough was instrumental in staying focused on her academic goals.
“There were times that I did hesitate because I didn’t see other first-generation college students in my degree field,” Eva said. “I needed that extra support and basically that’s what ETS, Upward Bound and Student Support Services provided. I had mentors in these programs and they were who I pretty much leaned on for support throughout my life.”
She recognizes she’d chosen one of the more challenging academic degrees — economics — but it was an area of study she fell in love with during her Early Honors Program at APU. She said at times she doubted she could pull off the degree and felt alone in navigating her education, but that’s where her mentors swooped in, providing the encouraging words and confidence she needed to keep going.
“I believe TRIO programs are valuable because there have been so many other successful TRIO alumni who have gone on to become teachers or lawyers — and it’s because of support that these programs have provided.”
When Eva wasn’t in the library or in the lecture hall pursuing her undergraduate degree, she was busy involving herself with extracurricular activities at UAA, from serving as a senator in USUAA and vice president of UAA’s Economic Club, to helping plan the university’s Homecoming events, as well as been serving as a mentor in Student Support Services.
“I don’t think I would have stepped out of my comfort zone if it wasn’t for my mentors,” she said, adding that if not for them she wouldn’t have had the confidence to participate in other UAA activities. But by taking a risk, she found additional support from her peers.
“I had mentors in student government, too,” she said. “I had JT (Jonathon Taylor, former USUAA Student Government president, and spring 2016 commencement speaker) and Matt (Matthieu Ostrander, former USUAA vice president) as my mentors. There were many times when I hesitated about continuing with my economics degree but I knew I had two great mentors that I could look up to when I needed help.”
Eventually, Eva became a mentor herself, through UAA’s TRIO Student Support Services, paying forward the support and guidance her mentors provided her in her early days at UAA. She was able to connect with other first-generation college students, empathizing with others in what can be a somewhat lonely experience.
“Being a mentor in SSS has been a very rewarding experience,” Eva said. “Throughout the two years I have served as a mentor in SSS it has been amazing because I have gotten to watch all six of my mentees grow confident in their abilities to be successful in college.”
In addition to relating easily to her mentees, she also provided critical support and insight when it came to financial aid or enrollment questions since her student campus job was working for UAA’s Enrollment Services.
Making a life at UAA
For Eva, UAA is her second home. It’s been an important part of her life — in and out of the classroom — and she doesn’t see herself leaving the university anytime soon.
She’s excited to start her Master of Public Administration program this month. She’ll continue her student job in Enrollment Services and will remain a mentor with TRIO Student Support Services.
“Being a first-generation college student has pushed me and I have really heeded all the advice that I have been given over the years, specifically, from my parents,” Eva said. “They have sacrificed so much in order for me to go to college and I hope one day that I can pay them back.”
Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement