Students Rising Above with Wendy Tokuda

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — On Tuesdays after school, you will find Sosaia Pulu working at the Bikery, a non-profit in Oakland that repairs bikes and recycles them. It is much more than a job for him. “It’s taught me a lot of problem solving skills,” he said. “The Bikery has really gotten me to connect and contribute to the community.”

The job at the Bikery helped Sosaia at a crucial time when he was skipping school and letting his grades fall.

Hard to believe that now when you see him at Oakland High School as student body president and headed for college. But it took some work to get to this point.

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There has been a lot of pain in his life, beginning with his father’s death, when Sosaia was nine years old. He remembers the day in perfect detail. His dad had a doctor’s appointment, and Sosaia had asked permission to go with him but was denied. His father was walking up a hill to the hospital, when he died of a heart attack. “If I had been there, I felt like I would have been able to help him out in some way,” he said, even though he was just a little boy. “That’s something that … really scars me to this day.”

This comment offers a window into Sosaia’s character – his desire to care for others and his deep feelings of responsibility for family, ever since he was a little boy. “Sosaia is just about the sweetest, most wonderful human being,” said his Students Rising Above mentor, Robin Levi. “You just feel this love and kindness emanating off of him.”

His father’s death began a downward spiral of financial problems for the family. His mother had to work longer hours to support the seven children.

“A lot of the time food was scarce and my mom really didn’t want to take, she didn’t want to go on welfare,” remembered Sosaia. “One month, we’d push over the water bill, and the next month, we’d have to push over the gas or electric bill. It was just a lot of hustling to get those bills paid.”

“Sosaia is one of those kids who takes everything on himself,” said Levi. “Even though he was youngest, he started thinking, maybe I can eat a little bit less and then there will be more food. And this is the type of kid that he is.”

One of his sisters had been disabled in a tragic car accident – paralyzed from the neck down. When she passed away, it all came tumbling in on Sosaia and he began to lose hope.

He started slipping in school. “Like Ds and Fs, and Cs,” he said. “I skipped school a lot.”

When I asked him how he turned it around, he couldn’t really pinpoint any single moment, but it probably started when he caught a break and was accepted into a college-prep, tutoring program for low-income kids called Upward Bound.

“One of the most crucial experiences was that I got to see a lot of Upward Bound alumni that succeeded,” said Sosaia. “I see a lot of them holding pennants like Stanford, or UC Berkeley … It was cool because I got to hear their story … about how they changed and how they were resilient and persistent throughout the struggles that they face and to me, that was just the most inspiring thing … That was like the first step. From there… things just starting piling up and piling up.”

Things like taking a class at the Bikery, which led to an internship, and then to a job! That gave him confidence and taught him some important lessons about working through problems. “They’ve taught me how to be solution oriented,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most important things they’ve taught me.”

We happened to have this video of Sosaia when he was about 10, because his brother Christopher was also a Student Rising Above (with both undergraduate and master’s degrees!) The video shows him at a family meeting, which they held weekly to check in on everyone’s progress. The first time I watched the video, I missed seeing Sosaia completely – he was so small and tucked behind an older brother. When his mother asked him how he was doing, you could barely hear his answer. (See the TV story to see “little” Sosaia)

But seeing the family meeting really helped understand the close nature of this family. Older brother Christopher ran the meetings, and was an important role model. “He was really setting the tone, being a great example for all of us,” Sosaia said. But education and college, he added, was something the whole family pushed. “Education to us has just been a tool we can kind of use to place ourselves in a better position.”

Leading the way, Christopher finished college and went on to get his master’s degree. But Sosaia turned his life around on his own and that was no easy task. “I just had to find it, kind of self-reflect and kind of really make the change,” he said.

His grades started to climb and he began getting involved in more student activities at school. By his senior year, he was student body president, taking Advanced Placement classes, and president of the Polynesian Club. “Just to make that transition, to wake up and say ‘that’s not who I am, I’m going to be somebody completely different’ and then act on it,” said Levi with admiration, “it shows incredible strength of will.”

Sosaia has become a lifelong learner. “I really admire knowledge and I go to school more for the knowledge and I do a lot of extracurricular activities because of the knowledge.”

And something else about him is very evident now – his deep-felt value about what is important in life. “I’m happy with not having any material objects … they’re very temporary,” he said. What are important to him are friends and family. “It’s connections that count … relationships.”

Sosaia’s goals now align with those values – something he learned at the Bikery and through his other mentors. “They pushed me not to seek for a lucrative job but to rather something that’s really meaningful and contributing to society and change,” he said. He’s interested in public service of some sort.

His mentor may have summed Sosaia up best. “He just touches me because there is so much love coming off of him,” said Levi. “Just the fact that he just turned his life around, he gives me hope – for him but also for the world.”