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Education Is ‘the Ultimate Plan’ for Young Samoan-American Men at Le Aumaga

Members of Le Aumaga after a recent session at California State University, Long Beach. Courtesy of Le Aumaga

On a Saturday morning in early April, the members of Le Aumaga spent their time dressed in the traditional Samoan ie faitaga (wrap-around bottom) and ofu tino (dress shirt) and discussing rap lyrics from a song by hip-hop artist J.Cole: "You can dream, but don't neglect the execution."

Co-founder Justin Kalolo had written the words on the chalkboard.

"We create a game plan for our dreams, and as we go through our plans, the execution falls on your shoulders," Kalolo said to the group of mostly high school-aged mentees.

Kalolo, 24, and fellow co-founder Fraser Tauaivale, 22, founded Le Aumaga, a community group aimed at young men of Samoan descent, in September 2016 and have been intent on helping young Samoan-American men in Southern California execute their dreams since.

After being connected via community nonprofit Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), Kalolo and Tauaivale joined forces to build upon the mentoring they were already doing at their churches and in their local communities.

The pair said growing up in rough neighborhoods inspired them to start a group that could help younger Samoan Americans steer clear of what they call the "vices" of low-income areas.

"Being exposed to gangs, violence, substance abuse [was] like, 'This it for us. When I get older, I'm supposed to be just like my uncle who does these things, or I'm supposed to be just like my brothers and my cousins who do those things,'" Kalolo told NBC News. "There was no saying like, 'Hold on. Here's somebody who's a professional who's doing great and successful.'"

According to a 2014 report released by EPIC and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) ethnic groups in California earn lower incomes per capita than the state average. On a national scale, Samoan Americans, specifically, earn a per capita income of $14,936, just a little over half of the national average of $27,334.

In California, NHPIs living in poverty increased by 97 percent between the years 2007 to 2012, a rate higher than any other group in the state, according to the 2014 report. A 2013 Census Bureau report indicated a national poverty rate among NHPIs of 17 percent.

"Knowing the struggle, knowing the narrative of our community right now, and how many of us are low-income or in poverty, we know so many youth who are in situations that we were in growing up," Kalolo, who grew up in Long Beach, said. "Just knowing that someone believes in you and what you're able to accomplish — that's something we wanted to provide for these youth."

Kalolo and Tauaivale conduct weekly check-ins and hold monthly meetings at local college and university campuses to showcase institutions of higher education to their mentees — and, hopefully, inspire some interest.

"As young Samoan men, we didn't have people exposing us to college campuses. We didn't have people walking us through high school. And then there's a disconnect with our parents being immigrants and understanding the education system," Tauaivale, who himself attends a community college in Orange County, told NBC News.

According to the EPIC report, NHPI adults aged 25 years or older are less likely than average to hold a college degree, with Marshallese and Samoan Americans the least likely to hold a bachelor's degree than any other racial groups examined (3 percent and 12 percent respectively).

Three of the high school seniors in the group were at risk of dropping out of high school, according to Tauaivale. Since joining, one has graduated early, while the others are on track. Tauaivale said it's important to him that Le Aumaga members view college as a conduit for upward socioeconomic mobility rather than as an opportunity to play sports for Division-I schools like USC or to become pro athletes in the future.

"A lot of folks are like, '[Samoans are] not just football players; we're more than that.' But let's not deny that that's part of the narrative at this point," he said, referring to some mentees' goals of playing in the NFL one day. "What we're helping them understand is that education is a tool because football, to them, is a meal ticket."

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He wants to pivot them away from that: "We try not to preach the 'fallback' narrative, like education as the 'fallback plan.' Education is the ultimate plan. Football is the fallback plan."

The group's name, Le Aumaga, comes from a term in traditional Samoan society, where the "aumaga" or "untitled men" are the designated male caretakers, guardians, and servicers of a village. Kalolo said learning Samoan history and their members' own family stories have been a meaningful part of the group's activities.

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They also strive to reconcile the community-driven aspects of Samoan culture — namely "fa'a Samoa" or placing community and familial priorities above personal ones — with a more individually driven American culture.

It's a challenge Kalolo sees among his mentees, some of whom are first-generation Samoan American, as they attempt to balance family responsibilities with personal goals of going to college or pursuing a career.

"It sucks because those two scenarios have been pitted against each other but we believe there's a balance to be had. I think it's natural for folks to say, 'Well, it's hard to be successful because we have to do this' or 'It's hard to go to school because we have to take care of the family because now we're 18, and we have to get a job,'" said Kalolo.

For the mentees, the group has served as a surrogate family and brotherhood, like for James Asiata, 17, from Garden Grove, California. His mother passed away suddenly last December.

"Over the past few months, it's been a boost of confidence. They've given me confidence academically, socially and personally," Asiata told NBC News.

At their most recent meeting at USC, the members charted out their dreams and goals on worksheets, building upon vision boards they had made at a previous meeting. For Asiata, this includes pursuing higher education. "I would be the first one in my family to do so. And not just attend college but stay dedicated to it and not drop out," he said.

Goals like Asiata's are music to the group leaders' ears, who want their members to view education as part of meeting the obligations of fa'a Samoa and not in contention with them.

"Fa'a Samoa is all about being prepared. It's about love and being prepared. And we preach to them, education is a way of being prepared," said Tauaivale. "Our culture's survival depends on education."

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the organization's name.