Motu Sipelii transferred to Portland State University from a community college in American Samoa looking for a pathway toward a career in science.
Specifically, he was interested in PSU’s Build EXITO program — an undergraduate research training program designed to support underrepresented students interested in careers as scientific researchers.
Now a senior studying health science and biology on a pre-med track, Sipelii is the Associated Students of Portland State University’s first Samoan president.
“I want to create a path for folks who are interested in both healthcare and policy because they are intertwined,” he says. With experience in government and as a physician, Sipelli aspires to be a senator who can impact health policy in an informed manner.
His term as ASPSU president began in June — in the middle of a pandemic. Serving the student body effectively has been challenging as most students attend school remotely, but as a self-described optimist, Sipelli hopes to create lasting, positive change for the student body.
We asked him about his goals, governing virtually and why students need to vote.
Why did you want to become ASPSU president?
PSU has done so much for me. But overall, ASPSU leadership wasn’t as effective as it should have been. We needed a change. I’m working on building relationships with different partners on campus. Because of that, I got to be included in a lot of important discussions — like campus safety and disarming campus police. When I first met President Stephen Percy, we've had numerous conversations centered around campus safety and what students felt at the time. I would like to acknowledge the disarm PSU coalition as it was their initial efforts that helped to disarm the university. Later I was asked to serve as a steering team lead for the new Reimagine Campus Safety Committee and I'm excited with what new recommendations and insight this committee will offer moving forward.
You’ve mentioned that ASPSU needs to approach administration differently to be more effective. How do you envision that relationship?
My goal as the liaison between ASPSU and the administration is that instead of us reaching out to them, they would reach out to us. It’s really helped spread the word that we’re actually here and trying to do something. I’m going to the top and they’re sending the message down through the bottom of the departments to ensure everyone hears the message. Faculty are especially my target because they’re the ones engaged with students. It’s been a super productive summer, so I feel like this is just the beginning.
What challenges does overseeing a governing body virtually pose?
Virtually you can’t really bond as a team as well as you can in person, but for the most part I’m really glad with how everyone on my team works together cohesively. This is a collaboration where we will work together and I’ve been holding people accountable to that.
I'm hoping that everyone on my team enjoys ASPSU as much as I do. In previous administrations, ASPSU struggled staffing a full board due to various reasons, but I'm hoping this year the folks who I started with will be the ones that I will finish with at the end of my term. I'm currently looking into how to effectively communicate with my team which involves limiting the amount of meeting time (if possible) and utilizing other software programs more like Zoom and Slack.
What issues do you think are most important to address this year?
I’ve got five main issues.
Campus security: My job is to advocate for students to be part of the planning process.
Redefining diversity: I want to help with the retention and success of students, faculty and staff of color. I have not met one single person of color who's had a good experience here at PSU. And so I want to help change that. ASPSU is helping create the Equity Summit in October and we're supposed to make sure that all discussions include student input. We're going to help push students to join those conversations because I would prefer students to speak for themselves regarding their experiences rather than a faculty or staff member speaking on behalf of students if possible. Students need to be there to share how they feel, because assuming is different than reality.
Vernier Science Center: I’m trying to make sure that student input is provided to make sure that the building that's going to be built is something that's truly accessible for students.
I asked students what they wanted to see and they wanted gender neutral bathrooms, they wanted a 24-hour computer lab and they wanted a Student Advisory Board to kind of adopt a similar model as the Student Health Advisory Board for Center for Student Health & Counseling.
Communication: I want to help establish a method of centralized communication to get messages out to the general student body more effectively, but not only to the student body, also to faculty and staff.
I also want to improve the survey process that the campus has. You'd be surprised how many departments send out the survey, but never really report the results. So the number one complaint I got from students was that a lot of those surveys were redundant.
Credibility: A lot of bridges had been burned in the past, and that was a problem because when I first came into office, a lot of administrators did not want to work with me until they met me. And now I’m glad because folks are starting to come to me and tell me about these important details or events and especially scholarships that I’m able to filter and then blast out on our newsletter.
Food and housing insecurity is also a large issue for students, with 44.6% experiencing housing insecurity and 47% experiencing food insecurity. What can ASPSU do?
Two directors are working on that specifically right now and trying to work with community partners to get more resources for students, other than the PSU Food Pantry. For example, one director is looking into helping students who are affected by the wildfires and trying to find external funds to help them.
We’re quickly approaching the 2020 presidential election. Why do you think it’s important for students to vote?
Students are tired and numb because of everything thats happened in 2020. I've had numerous conversations with students whose lost hope and are tired especially because of the current political climate. This worries me sometimes because the last thing I would want students to feel is that their vote doesn't matter when in fact a single vote could make the biggest difference!
We are the next generation of leaders, instead of us waiting until we take the seat, why not become politically active now? I’m trying to encourage students to act now instead of later.
I strongly believe that it's my generation of prospective leaders that will change America for the better and let's start that here by voting in Portland!
At the moment, we’re planning various town hall forums with different themes. We hope to collaborate with different student groups and departments on campus also with the Oregon Students Association to invite local and state leaders from the legislature and other places to voice what resources students need and what students want to see their elected officials do. More info to follow!
Anything else students should know about you?
I’m an email away. I'm not striving to be the best president because I ran for this role because of the purpose and not recognition. I want to truly be an advocate for the student body and for ASPSU to be recognized more. And if you have concerns, whether you're a student, faculty or staff, reach out to me because I’m all about the holistic approach.
Associated Students of Portland State University is PSU’s student government. To learn more about the full elected body and their goals, view this presentation.