The daughter of Samoan parents and the first of seven children to attend college, Tepora Su’a knows firsthand the challenges of navigating higher education as a STEM major and first-generation college student.
“I knew early on, that I wasn't going to go to college unless I got an athletic or academic scholarship - my family simply couldn't afford it,” said Tepora, who was born and raised in San Diego and worked hard in high school to earn both an athletic scholarship to play volleyball and an academic scholarship to attend Western Colorado University. “Balancing college life as a student-athlete while majoring in STEM, at a primarily white institution wasn't easy.”
She credits an amazing support system for helping her through the challenges.
“I am grateful to them, but not having a community with similar backgrounds or experiences as me was discouraging. There were days where I wanted to quit, but I persevered because I knew my parents had sacrificed so much for me to get to that point and that higher education was ultimately something I wanted to pursue,” said Su’a, whose advisor encouraged her to apply to graduate schools after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
This spring, Su’a finished her PhD in chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she was very active in organizations and initiatives that cultivated diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM.
Su’a brings her passion for DEI to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, beginning her new role as the Assistant Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Chemical Sciences. She will work with faculty, students, and staff in the Department of Chemistry and Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
Su’a has continually been involved in research and advocating for underserved students since her undergraduate days, and at times, it was tough to balance, she said. Now, she looks forward to the opportunity to focus on one of those two passions.
“Diversity drives scientific innovation. However, I can't rely on other people to make STEM more diverse, equitable, and inclusive for people of color and people from underrepresented backgrounds like me. If I want to see change, I need to take an active role in making that change,” she said. “I'm excited to start this role because I get to focus solely on the recruitment and retention of diverse individuals in STEM. I'm looking forward to working with talented students, faculty, and staff committed to improving the diversity and climate in the chemical sciences at UIUC.”
Su’a took chemistry in high school, but it wasn’t until general chemistry in college that she really connected with it and began thinking about a chemistry career. In her college chemistry club, organizing and participating in an annual chemistry “magic” show for elementary and middle school students confirmed her career path.
“Seeing how much the kids got excited over it and realizing how much I enjoyed participating in science outreach events was an integral part in deciding I was going to pursue chemistry long-term,” Su’a said.
During graduate school, she was a teaching assistant for Organic Chemistry I and Chemical Skills and Reasoning, an intro course to General Chemistry I.
“What I enjoy the most about teaching is integrating real world examples into my lessons and seeing the students get excited about chemistry through understanding topics that directly relate to the world they live in. During my initial years with chemistry this is something I connected with and it's something I hope the students appreciate as well,” she said.
Outside academic pursuits, Su’a enjoys anything outdoors: backpacking, camping, gardening, and kayaking. She hopes someday to visit her parents’ homeland, Samoa, an island halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.
“I try to make a couple of big camping trips every summer. The longest backpacking trail I completed was 30 miles over two days and it was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Nothing builds character like carrying a 50-pound backpack with everything you need to survive through a forest for two days,” said Su’a, who is also a huge football and basketball fan. “Go Minnesota Vikings and Phoenix Suns!”
— Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry