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Picture of Pacific Islander Alumni group

'Aiga' Means 'Family' in Samoan and at Duke

Duke’s affinity group Pacific Islander Alumni talk about the importance of connection in their community

Eric Tausilimaugalaga Scanlan, ’98 pauses and looks up before answering the question. After a few moments, he looks back and smiles as he says, 

“One of the things I was geeking out about was knowing it’s got to be Duke blue.”

As one of the founding co-chairs of Duke’s newest affinity group, Pacific Islander Alumni (PAIA), Scanlan was describing the creative process him and co-chairs Jonathan Lautaha, MBA ‘21 and Mike Tauiliili-Brown, ’08 took when creating the branding and messaging behind PAIA. 

While brainstorming about how to blend Duke and the Pacific Islander alumni experience together into the logo and ethos of this new affinity group, Scanlan mentions that they were inspired by the writings of Tongan and Fijian cultural anthropologist, Epeli Hau'ofa. Hau'ofa's essays present a position which contends that the ocean connects Pacific Islanders despite vast distances between island groups. Instead of a physical obstacle to be overcome, the ocean can be seen as a uniting medium which connects the islands. Combining the Duke blue background with the constellation of the Southern Cross further cements the establishment of this uniquely Pacific Islander perspective at Duke. 

“We look at the size of the Pacific Ocean and there’s this initial presumption of all the islands being so far and distant,” says Scanlan. “But a great way to look at it is that they’re all connected, not separated.” 

Connection is exactly what kickstarted PAIA when Scanlan got in touch with co-chairs Lautaha and Tauiliili-Brown. While learning about each other’s stories at Duke, they found commonality in feeling alone during certain points in their experiences.

Living in Durham, NC, Lautaha realized they could change that. PAIA could be a group to depend on by offering the sense of community they looked for during their time at Duke. For current and future Pacific Islander students, they could rely on the group for that extra support.  

“Getting to feel like you can be yourself, like you can breathe a breath of fresh air, it’s necessary.” says Lautaha. “It’s a stressful time in a new place and one of my priorities is how I can support the local community in Durham.”

Tauiliili-Brown echoed similar sentiments of how family, directly related or not, is paramount to their way of life. Half Black and Samoan, Tauiliili-Brown grew up in inner city Houston, TX, and recalls how many of his fondest memories were at the Polynesian Cultural Association (PCA). Everyone there was his family regardless of being immediate family members or not.

“All of the people there were my cousins and aunties,” says Tauiliili-Brown. “Even if we didn’t share blood that connection was real. We can extend that here to Duke.”

At Duke’s Homecoming Weekend, PAIA held an event to meet and speak with current students and alumni. Among the students they spoke to was sophomore Leilani Stanley-Galea’i ’26. Originally from American Samoa, she fondly described the gathering as a “family reunion” and stressed the importance of PAIA’s presence to her Duke experience and sense of belonging in the East coast.

“I always knew that wherever I ended up I would be one of few Pacific Islanders.” Says Stanley-Galea’i. “I didn’t think I’d have the community PAIA provides. I feel much lighter knowing I have our alumni to fall back on…I feel understood and seen.”

As PAIA moves into next year, their plans include continuing alumni outreach, discovering new members and building up their existing community at Duke. By creating relationships with current students and supporting alumni, PAIA wants their community to know they’re always here at Duke.

Aiga.” Scanlan says is Samoan for “family”. 

“You asked me to choose a word to describe PAIA and this is the word I choose.”