Meet Our OppU Achiever: Ian Tapu
We’re thrilled to announce the latest recipient of the $2,500 OppU Achievers Scholarship, Ian Tapu. Ian is a third-year law student at the University of Hawaii and self-described queer, envisionist progressive — identities which intersect with his core belief in social justice.
At school, Ian founded the Pacific Islander Legal Association to further the representation of Pacific Islanders in the legal field. He is also the president of the Student Bar Association and the president of the Lambda Law Student Association, which promotes awareness of diversity in sexuality and gender identity.
To add to his academic achievements, Ian is a research assistant for two professors. His work focuses on the intersection between food politics, race, and constitutional law, as well as ways that international law can protect the Pacific Islands from rising sea levels.
Further, Ian is a member of two moot court competition teams that focus on sexual orientation, gender identity, and Native American communities. He is also an avid writer, with a forthcoming article on how to protect Hawaiian self-determination in the New York University Review of Law and Social Change.
Where did this spark for equity and justice first start?
Ian explained that his grandfather told him as a child that he had two options: to become a doctor or a lawyer. The reason? Ian’s family immigrated to Hawaii from Samoa and Tonga, and his grandfather was a farmer who had difficulty navigating a new place and a new language, like many other immigrants. Ian now believes that his grandfather wanted to equip him with a language gained from higher education to act as tools in navigating the world.
It wasn’t until much later that Ian would be moved to pursue law.
In the fallout of leaving an abusive relationship, Ian was outed to his family. He was left feeling powerless. Fortunately, Ian was able to grow closer to his mother and stronger in the process. It was then that Ian decided he never wanted to feel powerless again. He took control of his narrative and wanted to ensure that others didn’t feel powerless either — whether that’s due to their sexuality, their immigrant status, or other factors beyond their control.
With an impressive list of achievements, Ian still struggles with imposter syndrome, which he sees in a lot of students who are first-generation or immigrants. Perhaps this is in response to an education system that assumes it is intuitive, when it is in fact not.
The piece of advice Ian gives these students is that they don’t have to go it alone.
“If you have a goal in mind, you need to collect as many resources and support systems out there to reach that goal. I think oftentimes we are conditioned that if it’s not in front of us, we can’t have it, but just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s not part of our future.”
As for what Ian envisions for his future, in the short-term he plans to enter a judicial clerkship in civil law. He’d then like to litigate — he’s enthralled by the idea of being in front of the Ninth Circuit Court or the Supreme Court. His ultimate dream job, however, is to become governor or senator of Hawaii and teach law part time.
You can read more about Ian’s achievements in his own words below.
I intimately understand that for far too long, underrepresented groups, especially Pacific Islanders (PI), have been conditioned to believe our only connection with the law is the criminal justice system. It is not surprising to accept this truism when it is our bodies that are disproportionately criminalized and as a result overly represented in the prison population. At a time in which immigrants are hotly political and contested, I am an achiever because I was raised by immigrants from Samoa and Tonga.
When I started law school, I noticed there were no student organizations that supported or advocated on behalf of PI students and as a response, I founded the first- ever Pacific Islander Legal Association. Within three months of our formation, I organized the first-ever Pre-Law Symposium for Pacific Islanders. The goal of the two-day symposium was to demystify the application process and empower PIs to see they have a space in the field of law. The symposium included two keynote speakers — a Samoan First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and the first Samoan judge in the United States — a panel of PI law students, a panel of PI legal professionals, a resume and personal statement writing workshop, a practice LSAT exam, a campus tour, and an admissions and financial aid informational session. What started as an endeavor with the hope of attracting 15 participants, ballooned into a movement with 77 attendees that hailed from a swath of island nations including New Zealand, Marshall Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Pohnpei, Samoa, Guam, and Hawaii.
My advocacy for my community then found its way to the state legislature. As the President of the Lambda Law Student Association, I pushed for a new bill that would create a third gender option for driver’s licenses. I organized student participation, set up lobby days at the state Capitol, and testified in front of and held meetings with various state politicians which eventually led to the passing of the law. My advocacy was rooted in cultural values and particularly in recognizing that Polynesians have always acknowledged the beauty and power of genders beyond the binary and Hawai‘i, in particular, is the number one state in terms of the highest percentage of the population that identifies as transgender.
Because of my work with the legislature and in law school, I was able to intern with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City advocating for LGBT rights and published an article in the Hawai‘i Bar Journal on the importance of cultural competence in working and interacting with transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. I have one goal as a gay Pacific Islander — to utilize the law as a tool for empowerment instead of oppression. If our peoples were able to traverse the largest ocean in the world and connect the smallest land masses, then why can’t we as Pacific Islanders now be that bridge that utilizes the language of law in order to uplift our communities?
Could you or someone you know use $2,500 for tuition? To apply, submit a short essay through our web portal.
Millard North High School
Johns Hopkins University
University of California, Berkeley
University of Rochester
University of California, Los Angeles
Stella Gitelman Willoughby
Berklee College of Music
University of Florida, Gainesville
West Charlotte High School