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Penny Semaia: Life Beyond the Gridiron

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Penny Semaia is the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Student Life at the University of Pittsburgh.


JC: Pacific Islanders typically reside on the West Coast due to its proximity to their island of origin. Being of Samoan, Pacific Island/Polynesian descent, what was your experience like growing up in Utica, New York? PS: I am originally from San Diego, but moved to Utica, New York with my mother and five siblings when I was four-years-old in 1985.

In Utica, we grew up poor and received public assistance; my mom worked two factory-type jobs until we got older. When we reached the age of 15, we got jobs and helped provide for the family. The biggest thing I will take away is the village mentality of our street. For example, my neighbors were my parents; my mom was someone else’s parent, and we had a lot of friends who would live with us based on their personal situation.

Back in 2004, I read an article in UN magazine that said Utica was one of the most diverse cities in America, per capita. I did not realize the diversity of Utica until I read that magazine because as a young child, I saw my friends just as my friends. In the classrooms, we would sit according to our last names such as Leskovich, Semaia, Nguyen, Sehic, and Gonzalez. It was all that richness of our ethnic backgrounds being in that same space which made it awesome, especially having my family, peers, and loved ones by my side. This richness and diversity opened up my curiosity with my own identity, which prompted me to ask, "how come I do not see other Samoans here?" It was not until my mother and aunt took us to Ft. Drum, an Army base in New York. As you know, there are a lot of Pacific Islanders that enlist in the military. In fact, the number one recruiting station of any military branch is in American Samoa for the Army. The Army base close to where I grew up in Utica was the first time where I went to a luau. All this sparked, further, my curiosity about my identity. Then, finding out and knowing that Greg Louganis was of Pacific Island descent sparked it further. I was a 6th grader and wanted to find out more, so I went to our public library and found Margaret Meade's book Coming of Age in Samoa and attempted to read it. Then, I started following all the sports figures such as Jesse Sapolu throughout the San Francisco 49ers dynasty and Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers. I remember picking up my first Sports Illustrated with Junior Seau riding his jet ski. I saw the different spaces where Pacific Islanders were represented. JC: You were accepted to Pitt on a full-ride football scholarship, tell me about your college experience? PS: I wanted to play football because of my brothers. They were great. My oldest brother, Leonard, was one of the best athletes I have ever seen. He was fast, powerful, and agile; he could run, throw, and was silky-smooth on the field, it looked effortless.

My two older brothers, who are twins, had that relentless pursuit to become great. They were grinders. They had a strong work ethic. By being around them, it provided a blueprint of what talent mixed with hard work can produce. Unfortunately, I was too big for pop-warner football but ended up playing when I was in 7th grade. I wanted to play running back, but because of my size I ended up playing as a lineman. Even though my brothers did not pursue football after a certain point, I continued because it was a part of my rhythm; however, I did not look at football as my end-all-be-all it was what I did in the fall. However beyond football and to stay active, I did track and field, was an active musician. I played viola throughout my school years without ever taking private lessons. I was just a kid trying to find things to do.

When I was a junior in high school, I had no idea my coaches were sending out film of me playing to college scouts and coaches. Then, one day my coach said these schools want you to apply to their school. I was like "college? you mean you want me to keep going to school?" In my mind, I had two options; enlist in the Marine Corps or work in the metal factory with my aunt. I saw a Marine recruiter during my junior year because I was interested in enlisting, but the recruiter said "no" because I was too big of a target. That canceled my options of being a Marine, which led me to work in a metal factory with my aunt and I was okay with that. But I started to receive a lot of recruitment letters from various schools and did not think of anything of them. I thought they were keepsakes of some sort and kept them in a box stored away. These were letters from American University, Syracuse University, Pitt, a lot of MAC [MidAtlantic Conferences Schools], and Patriot League schools. Then, I would get phone calls from these schools; this led me to get on a plane for the very first time to go on recruitment/campus visits. I remember going on a visit to New Hampshire in the winter. Then, I remember coming to Pitt and was in awe because it was not like Utica. I remember my host, Khiawatha Downey, taking me to an NSBE party downtown at the convention center and felt like I could see myself here. I felt at home. It was natural and felt good. I was comforted that Pittsburgh was in a bigger space and a bigger city. From there, I said "I guess I am going to college."

At Pitt, I had a naive mindset. For instance, I did not know what scholarship meant until one day I got my scholarship bill and was literally scared to death. I saw all those numbers and thought I had to pay it. My first thought was I got to go home now; there is nothing left for me here. I found out that this was not a bill and was what my scholarship covered. This type of experience helped me out for the greater good. JC: Why did you choose to major in anthropology with related areas in sociology and performance? PS: Dr. Babs Mowery, who was my academic advisor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and who is still an academic advisor to this day helped me put together a conglomerate of my passions and ideas and fine-tune them based on my interests and curiosities. All this led to her asking me have I ever thought about anthropology? From there, she signed me up for my first class, cultural anthropology taught by Dr. Richard Scaglion who is still a good friend to this day and made a huge impact and influence on my life. I remember, my first day of class, and sitting in the front row, he knew I was Polynesian based on my look and kukui nut necklace. Then, the sociology part came when I took my first class with Dr. Mike Epitropoulos, who is still with the sociology department and also a good friend of mine. Dr. Epitropoulos challenged me to think deeper. I will never forget taking his course, he showed the class the WTO in Seattle where protests took place, and informing us why the protests were going on. Most importantly, he wanted us to understand why equity should be at the forefront of our mindsets in every aspect of life, and where do we see injustices going on in life; he opened my eyes to a lot of things, which I have personally experienced in my life such as racial profiling. As an undergraduate, I joined student organizations such as Asian Student Association, Black Action Society, and Freshmen Peer Counselors. Then there is Donna Sanft, the athletic/academic administrator, who is a mentor, great friend, and the fourth person who was instrumental in my life and challenged me to think outside the box and focus beyond the gridiron. With this in mind, the performance side of things came to fruition with my creative passions such as performing in our orchestra and being a part of a quartet, and playing in high school musicals. I enjoyed it and love to see people in their creative space. This led me to take Intro to Performance courses at Pitt and being a part of the Pitt Film Club. I did not want to be identified as just a college football player; football is a part of me but it is not the me. This led me to work with student-athletes today where I try to help them expand their own mindset of themselves. It is their personal brand or their identity. JC: How did you get into your current position as Pitt's Senior Associate Director for Student Life? PS: I played my last season of college football in fall ’03, but my final semester was spring ’04. I got caught up in the pitch of a sales job. A recruiter came to campus and was selling us on his business that had the potential for new employees to make $150,000. I was intrigued and was down for it because I knew I was not going to play in the NFL. I get hired and think this was going to be a smooth transition from when the semester ends, which is when my last scholarship money/stipend would come in to pay for my necessities. As the semester is coming to an end, I am not hearing anything from the recruiter. I am starting to get worried and concerned. After a lot of attempts to track him down I get a hold of him and he tells me that the business he and his partner started ended up folding. He tells me that two weeks before my rent is due. From this moment, I did not know what to do.

Then, along comes Scotty, a hot dog vendor whose hot dog stand was in front of Hillman Library. Scotty sees me order two hot dogs and can tell something is wrong, so he asks, "what is wrong?" I tell him that I need a job. He tells me to meet him tomorrow at 9 am, and I do. Scotty shows me the ropes of the business, and I am working with him at his hot dog stand. This is when I used my outside the box thinking, no academics, and no football. I was able to use some of my street smarts to help increase the revenue of the business and all of a sudden the revenue would increase from 10%, 20%, 30%, all the way up to 200%. Scotty was happy and said you got this! Scotty was another important figure in my life when things hit rock bottom, but this part of my life was where I learned to grind and hustle hard and made me grow exponentially. At that time in my life I had seven jobs. I worked as a gym secretary and janitor, I worked as a bouncer at a bar. At that same bar, they made me a manager when they found out I had some brains. After that, I got a temp job at Pitt working in admissions and for the Pitt football team. It was that hustle that kept me focused. All of these experiences that I had and the connections led me back to the Athletics Department in which they created a brand new life skills position with student affairs through their career center called the Student-Athletes Life Skills Coordinator position. It was supposed to be a joint position between Student Affairs and Life and Athletics, but the focus would be helping on life skills via programming services and transition. I interviewed for the position and based on my skills and reputation on campus I was able to get the job and have been here for 16 years.

JC: You do a lot of community engagement and support work throughout Pittsburgh and in Samoa, what inspires your work? PS: Two things stick out of my mind. First, are my mother, aunt, and sisters. My mother exemplified the courage, strength, resilience, and sacrifice to help others. It was not her doing this just for her family, she did this for all who needed help in some way or another. This was the shared sentiment of the women in my family. Second is seeing how others help others in certain situations. For instance, I remember when I was in 3rd grade, a lady came into our house over Christmas and delivered a bag full of toys and my mother was crying when she saw the bag of toys.

A year later, I found out it was one of the 4th-grade teachers from my elementary school who dropped the bag of toys to our house. The teacher did that wonderful act of kindness because she understood what my mom’s situation was and provided us with an amazing Christmas that year. These types of memories sit with us forever. I feel this draw to help people. It feels like a sense of duty. So, when I had a chance to work here in the city of Pittsburgh whether it is through the Big Brothers Brothers Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Promise, or the Polamalu Foundation, I am all in. I make it a duty in my life to continue to give back.

When I heard about the Fa'a Samoa Initiative I was at Troy and Theodora's luau and thought it

was a celebration luau.

It was not until I saw their videos that I realized it was a fundraiser for their foundation. Seeing the type of impact they were having, specifically with our people in American Samoa struck a chord with me. At that moment, I told Troy whatever you need, I will be more than thrilled and honored to help in any capacity, and Troy said yes. From there, Troy wanted me to help create a program for his 2013 initiative. I got together with two colleagues from Utah and Texas and we created a program. They focused on the academics of the program, while I oversaw life skills and leadership. After that program, Troy came up to me and said Uso wow when you speak it is truly inspiring. From that point, Troy asked if I would be the director for their life skills part of their foundation and initiative.

One of the core themes of Troy and Theodora’s heart of their foundation is helping the kids and helping those helping the kids. I made countless trips to Samoa to help with the program and brought some of the kids from Samoa to Pittsburgh to give them that experience as well.

JC: What life advice would you give your 10-year-old self in regard to pursuing your dreams?

PS: I am picturing myself at ten-years-old. It was a discovery year. I had just entered 6th grade in the summer of ’92 and was exposed to a lot. I would probably tell my 10-year-old self to remember these situations, remember this space, but continue on with the same heart, compassion, and curiosity that you have because it is going to help you in the long-run. It is these life experiences that helped me create what I call my 7 Ps.

Passion, we all got passions. Imagine my fingers are fire. These passions, for instance, can be music, arts, academics, etc. Whatever our passions are we got to find out what filters them because that will help us create purpose.

Purpose, we need to identify through value assessments and experiences these things that drive us. Once we identify those purpose points or that purpose space, then we need to build a plan.

Plan, whether we are using strategic goals or smart goals, we need to have a plan of mentorship. From that plan, we need to take action in pursuit.

Pursuit, at this point, we are going to pursue this plan moving forward. Sometimes in this

phase, we get either complacent or have not thought through thoroughly on the previous phases. Therefore, at some point, you got to pause.

Pause, this pause is the reflection part of what you just experienced and what you learned and as you reflect on that pause, this helps us create process.

Process, is the analysis, evaluations, measurables, metrics which we got to see where we are in the process. From here, this creates progress.

Progress, we get better! This is what I call chasing the ‘er. For example, everybody wants to be like Michael and be the greatest. At one point he was great. For him to get to the greatest, he had to get great(er). "Er's" are a never ending space where we are getting better, smarter, working harder. Be the "er" in your pursuit!


Jarime Chaco is a doctoral candidate in the Center for Urban Education’s Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh. His research is focused on the socioeconomic and cultural factors impacting educational attainment for Pacific Islanders in the U.S.

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