Recent Graduate Wins UC President’s Award

Abiel Malepeai with his fraternity cane outside the UC Davis Fire Department.
Abiel Malepeai, who received the UC President's Award for Outstanding Student Leadership for his advocacy for Pacific Islanders, shows off the cane of his fraternity outside the UC Davis Fire Department, where he serves as a student EMT.

Abiel Malepeai is guided by an old Samoan proverb that translates to English as “The pathway to leadership is service.” The recent UC Davis graduate has advocated for Pacific Islander students, served as a student EMT with the UC Davis Fire Department and helped meet the basic needs of students.

Three university officials pose with four members of Abiel Malepeai's family
Family received the award on behalf of Abiel Malepeai, who was attending a national fraternity meeting. From left to right are Chancellor Gary S. May; Richard Lieb, chair of the UC Board of Regents; Abiel's father Jack Malepeai, sister Ululau Tautolo and brother-in-law Jason Tautolo; and UC President Michael V. Drake. (UCOP photo)

Malepeai has now been honored with the UC President's Award for Outstanding Student Leadership for collaborative problem-solving that furthers UC’s mission of teaching, research and public service. The award, which includes $1,500 and a plaque, was presented at the UC Board of Regents meeting on July 20.

“[I’m] super thankful, grateful and honored to receive this award,” said Malepeai, who graduated in June with a Bachelor of Science degree in neurobiology, physiology and behavior.

Malepeai has received the award for his work encouraging institutional changes to improve the lives of fellow UC Davis students who identify as Pasifika, referring to the people of Oceania and their descendants.

The 28-year-old reentry student transferred in fall 2020 to UC Davis from Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, California, and aspires to become a physician who is involved in policymaking to advance health equity. “We can enact change via policy for underrepresented minorities,” he said.

Advocating for his community

Born in Faga’alu, American Samoa, and raised in South San Francisco, Malepeai considers his heritage to be a source of empowerment. “My ups and downs are representative of the people that raised me,” he said.

Malepeai strives for greater visibility and resources for the Pacific Islander community on campus. He co-founded and served as chief of treasury of the Pacific Islander Student Association, worked as a student intern for the Strategic Asian and Pacific Islander Retention Initiative, and served on the vice chancellor of Student Affairs’ cabinet of student leaders. He also co-chaired UC Davis’ Oceania: Pacific Islander Research Working Group, a space for researching Pacific Islander history, literature and culture.

Malepeai was also behind the push that resulted in the “and” being added to the name of the Strategic Asian and Pacific Islander Retention Initiative. He said this was meant to bring visibility to underrepresented minorities within both the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora that are not usually captured in aggregated data, such as Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian.

“Abiel has been a transformative student leader at UC Davis who has made long-lasting contributions with his advocacy and student leadership,” said Pablo Reguerín, vice chancellor of Student Affairs. “He has left an incredible legacy on our campus, making tremendous gains to address important areas such as basic needs and supporting the thriving and unique needs of Pacific Islander students.”

At a November meeting of the vice chancellor’s cabinet of student leaders, Malepeai spoke with tears about the need for an Asian and Pacific Islander center. The other retention initiatives on campus – African American, Chicanx/Latinx and Native American – have their own spaces. He said the Asian and Pacific Islander initiative should also have a space for programming to promote the retention of underrepresented students. The vice chancellor’s office said campus leadership is committed to expanding specific, culturally relevant support for Pacific Islander students.

“I feel like the ripples I’ve made on campus have made it to the top,” Malepeai said, “It was uncomfortable at times, but you gotta get uncomfortable at times to get things to function.”

A broad range of involvement

As a student manager at the Aggie Compass Basic Needs Center, Malepeai developed an intern program to expand the reach of basic needs initiatives to student community centers. The program will be piloted this fall with Center for African Diaspora Student Success, and he is continuing his work with Aggie Compass as its inaugural basic needs fellow.

Malepeai is also a national leader and campus chapter president of the Black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. He helped plan the fraternity’s recent three-day Kappa League Conference that brought about 100 Black youth from four states to UC Davis to develop leadership and STEM skills.

“I joined a Black fraternity because I wanted to align myself with brothers of like intent,”  he said, adding that Kappas identify as men of achievement. “I do not identify as Black … That is just who I was around.”

Because there is no center for Asian and Pacific Islanders, Malepeai said he would often spend time at the Center for African Diaspora Student Success, or CADSS. “It was the people at CADSS who showed me the most love and always made me feel welcomed. I will never forget that.”

Malepeai earned a music minor. “I grew up with music my whole life,” he shared. His father has been the choir conductor and piano player for the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa in San Francisco. Malepeai himself grew up playing classical piano and has branched out to the ukulele, guitar and bass. “Going to music history classes and University Chorus reminded me of my childhood of being surrounded by music and hearing my dad practicing piano,” he said. “It provided moments of peace.”

Of his contributions, Malepeai said: “I think what I was able to do at Davis, I was able to do because I was at Davis,” he said. “I was able to express myself. I was in an environment that encouraged that, and I am really thankful for that.”

Shreya Kumar, a rising junior majoring in communications, is the emergency communications and writing intern in News and Media Relations.

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