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Māori Woman Chooses Faith and Service Over University Tenure

 

As a young girl, Moana Sitake knew that she wanted to one day serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Growing up, she heard many stories of amazing missionary experiences from her New Zealand grandparents, Ngatihaua and Miriama Witehera, who served four full-time missions with the Church. Many of those stories included accounts of their association with renowned missionary and Māori Book of Mormon translator, and later, apostle, Matthew Cowley.

“Matthew Cowley was so influential to my family,” Sitake says. “As an infant, my mother was blessed by him.”

Moana, a Māori, attended high school at the Church College of New Zealand. Although she has now spent most of her life in the US, the time she spent in New Zealand really shaped a lot of who she became. 

She had mapped out a life plan for herself that included graduating from college with a degree in accounting, serving a mission, returning home to begin a career with a fortune 500 company in Hawaii and then getting married.

But things didn’t go according to her plans.

At 18, Sitake began her college education at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. In her first semester she met Saia Hopoate, and he would change her life plan in a big way.

As a returned missionary himself, Saia was supportive of Moana’s dream to serve a mission, but it was soon apparent to both that they needed to be married, rather than wait until she returned home from a mission. They were married in August the following year.

Moana finished her accounting degree while raising three active little boys. She worked a part-time job with good benefits and good pay. Out of the blue they received a phone call that her paternal grandfather had passed away in Oregon. On the drive home to Utah following the funeral they hit black ice, their car rolled six times and Saia was killed. Everyone else walked away with little or no injuries.

Through the sorrow and mourning, she also chose to count her blessings.

“The Lord blessed us. I found a new home in a wonderful ward [congregation] and they took care of me and my sons,” she recalls.

After a few years she decided to return to college to become a high school teacher of mathematics and business, “so she could have the same holidays off as her boys.”

Discovering that business teachers were not really needed at that time and that science teachers were, she switched her minor from business to chemistry.

“It was hard and challenging being a single mother to three sons and a student, but my heart stirred in me and I kept taking more chemistry classes until it became my major.”

One of her professors suggested that she continue her education and become a college or university professor instead of a high school teacher. She applied to graduate school at Brigham Young University where each of the professors asked the same question: “How do you plan to keep up with the rigours of graduate school and still raise your kids as a single mother?”

“I answered them all the same way,” she says. “Hard work and faith. The same way I have been for the past eight years.”

She was admitted to the chemistry program at BYU. Towards the end of the semester she met Tevita Sitake during a combined choir practice for a Christmas festival.

“Tevita didn’t waste any time,” she laughs. “We were engaged on Christmas Day and we were married on 4 January 2006.”

Sitake completed her PhD and worked a year in a post-doctoral position. She then got a job as a lecturer at Utah Valley University.

Her love of chemistry and of teaching brought her out of her naturally reserved self.

“As an adult I learned to be more assertive because I missed out on a lot if I was shy,” she said. “As a teacher I really enjoyed getting the shy students at the back of the class to come out of their shells as they gained confidence.”

The time came for Moana to apply for tenure at Utah Valley University. She had completed years of teaching, with both scientific research as well as significant teaching research and was serving as president-elect of the American Chemical Society Utah Chapter.

She had finished the tenure interview process with most feedback being very positive. “I was excited, I felt like I had made it,” she explains.

Then the couple were called to serve as senior missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Determined to show her faith in the Lord, she was prepared to withdraw her candidacy for tenure from the university to go on a mission.

“Instead,” she says, “the Lord reaffirmed to me that He really did want me to serve a mission, because my boss came into my office to tell me they would need me to go through another application process. I knew that the Lord was calling me now and there was no longer any reason to doubt.”

Because she did not receive tenure she resigned without benefit. “There is no job waiting for me when I return home. There is no severance. There is no monthly pay-check coming in. My husband is in the same situation with his job. Tevita and I remain full of faith. Trying not to waver, but to press forward with a steadfastness in Christ.”

“My desire is to do whatever the Lord wants of me here in the mission.”

The Sitake’s are currently serving happily as senior missionaries in the Solomon Islands, part of the Vanuatu Port Vila Mission. In a little less than a year and a half they will finish their missions and head back to the United States to write the next chapters of their lives.

But, for now, they are focused on serving God and helping individuals and families in the Solomon Islands.

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