Peniasi Cibaciba started to lose hope that he would attend college when his application to BYU–Hawaii was denied for the third time.
There was no way Peniasi could afford college on his own. He hoped to receive assistance from BYU–Hawaii’s IWORK program for international students. However, the university has to turn away qualified applicants every year because of limited funding. And for three years in a row, Peniasi was one of those applicants.
Persistence Pays Off
Peniasi didn’t give up, and with his fourth application he was finally admitted to BYU–Hawaii and granted financial aid.
Although Peniasi was grateful, he also felt a duty and desire to stay in Samoa to care for his widowed mother, who had fallen ill with complications from type 2 diabetes. “I had to decide between taking care of my mom and coming here to BYU–Hawaii,” says Peniasi. “But my mom told me, ‘You can see how we are struggling. We need help. You need to go.’”
“I had to decide between taking care of my mom and coming here to BYU–Hawaii. But my mom told me, ‘You can see how we are struggling. We need help. You need to go.’”
Shortly after arriving on campus, Peniasi experienced a tender mercy that restored his confidence in himself and his decision to leave home and attend BYU–Hawaii. He recalls being unsure his first Sunday of which ward to attend, so he followed a crowd of people who were walking to church.
“When I arrived, everyone was standing and singing the opening hymn,” he says. “Then when everyone sat down, I saw President Nelson on the stand. Before coming to BYU–Hawaii, I doubted myself. I didn’t know if this was the right place for me. My mom was sick at home. She probably needed me. But after I shook the prophet’s hand that Sunday, I felt a confirmation that this is where I was meant to be.”
Three weeks after that spiritual high, Peniasi suffered one of the lowest points in his life when he heard that his mother had passed away. With his grief came the return of selfdoubt. “I lost interest in school,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing here. I felt no purpose.”
Fortunately, Peniasi had supportive friends, extended family, and professors who encouraged him to continue his education, and in December 2022 he graduated with a degree in Pacific Island studies. “I am proud of myself for coming this far without my parents,” he says. “It wasn’t an easy journey, and I’m grateful to be here. I wish my parents were here to celebrate with me, but I know they are here in spirit.”
It was during his journey at BYU–Hawaii that Peniasi found purpose in the very trials that left him feeling hopeless earlier in life. Now he is applying the knowledge, skills, and opportunities he gained at BYU–Hawaii to serve people who face similar health and financial challenges.
First, Peniasi is helping people who suffer from diabetes—the same disease that afflicted his mother. During his final semester at BYU–Hawaii, Peniasi completed an on-campus internship with an organization called ‘Amanaki Fo‘ou, a public health nonprofit that provides diabetes education and prevention services for Pacific Islanders, who suffer disproportionately from the chronic condition.
As part of his internship with ‘Amanaki Fo‘ou, Peniasi organized a nine-week wellness and diabetes-prevention program at BYU–Hawaii for the university and neighboring communities. Participants learned about diabetes, proper nutrition, physical fitness, goal setting, and mental health. Weekly meetings included instruction, discussion, healthy snacks, and group exercise. “The things I know now could have helped my mother,” says Peniasi. “I want to help others improve their health and save lives.”
“The things I know now could have helped my mother. I want to help others improve their health and save lives.”
Keeping Kids in School
Second, Peniasi has a goal to help youth in Samoa acquire the education they need to lift themselves out of poverty.
While there is tuition-free schooling in Samoa, sometimes there are school fees that are prohibitively expensive for impoverished families—leaving the kids no choice but to drop out of school.
Peniasi plans to start a nonprofit to help those kids and their families. His organization will raise money and offer direct assistance for school expenses, raise awareness of other programs and resources available for families, and work with parents to help them become more self-sufficient.
“I want to do this nonprofit because I was that kid,” explains Peniasi. His father passed away when he was 16 years old, and his mother couldn’t afford the fees to keep him in school. Peniasi was determined and fortunate enough to find odd jobs to earn money and stay in school, but it doesn’t work out as well for many kids. “I want to give back to the community. I want to give back to my people in Samoa. I will be there for them.”
Thanks to You
Peniasi’s education at BYU–Hawaii and his efforts to serve others were made possible by the IWORK program and the donors who help fund it.
“Being here at BYU–Hawaii has allowed me to follow this dream that I have,” Peniasi says about his nonprofit. “I am very grateful for donors. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be able to achieve the things I am now achieving. For this, on behalf of all the students at BYU–Hawaii, thank you so much.”