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Pacific Academic Makes Big Hits Like Late Sporting Great Father

While American Football took Lisa Uperesa’s father around the world, it was academia that allowed her to follow in his footsteps, making the big hits with her published research.

Associate Professor Lisa Uperesa

Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland’s head of Te Wananga o Waipapa Māori and Pacific Studies, Associate Professor Uperesa takes to the stage with Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa and Sean Mallon at the Auckland Writers Festival on 17 May discussing the state of non-fiction writing for Pacific authors.

Uperesa (Pago Pago, Fagatogo, Puapua, and Billings, Montana) said her award-winning book Gridiron Capital: How American Football Became a Samoan Game (2022) captures an important part of social life that she didn’t see reflected in any of the (very few) historical treatments of American Sāmoa, where she grew up and where her father's side of the family is from.

“Sport is often seen as trivial but it is woven so thoroughly into everyday life today. The story about Sāmoan engagement in American football resonates with many families in the US, and it has impacted my own life in a significant way.

“The story is also not just about sport but about politics, migration, economy, gender, culture and - foundationally - hopes for the future.”

Her late father Tuufuli played college and professional gridiron; as well both he and her mother Kristin Uperesa went into teaching and administration careers in Sāmoa.

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“One thing that always stuck with me was my father's greatest achievement wasn't playing college or professional football, but earning his college degree.

“In the 1970s that was still very unusual for Samoans in the U.S. I played different sports in high school (track and field, softball, basketball, volleyball) as that was expected but I knew from my ninth-grade year that academics, not athletics, was going to be my pathway.”

While athletics took Uperesa senior from American Sāmoa to around the US, and Canada and later around the world, academia has taken the anthropologist around the globe - from Sāmoa to California, New York City, Hawaii, and Aotearoa and beyond.

“I’m grateful for the support of my husband David, our three kids, and our extended families throughout the journey.

“I feel blessed to be able to serve and lead in these spaces while supporting our next generation of scholars.”

After eight years at the University and a recent appointment of head of Pacific Studies, Uperesa will return to her northern hemisphere roots next month, taking up a tenured position as Associate Professor, and Henry and Morgan Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies with UCLA.

“I'm looking forward to being closer to my immediate and extended family when I return to the US, and to making new connections and reviving existing ones.

“It has been an honour to work with and learn from students and colleagues at University of Auckland's Te Wānanga o Waipapa and I will miss them, the Fale Pasifika complex, and being surrounded by Pacific peoples and cultures very much.

“But I am looking forward to [working with others on] creating new Pacific spaces at UCLA and cultivating connections to communities beyond the campus. The support given by the Asian American Studies department and Centre has been outstanding and the work of many hands have made the road ahead possible.”

Despite her excitement, Uperesa understands the cost of leaving ‘the Land of the Long White Cloud.’

“I will definitely miss the beauty [and quality of life in] Aotearoa (and the coffee and meat pies here!)”

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