A photo with a U.S. senator helped Lopaka Baptiste (liberal studies, '06) find his passion.
As an Iowa State undergraduate, Baptiste was interning at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., when he had a chance to meet then Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, the first Native Hawaiian elected to the U.S. Senate.
Baptiste, who is also Native Hawaiian, couldn't resist asking for a photo.
Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii and Lopaka Baptiste, meeting for the first time in Washington, D.C.
"He was such a genuine and humble person," Baptiste said. "I took a photo with him, hoping to just tell my family I met him, but he took all this time to talk to me."
The conversation led to an internship with the senator's office the following summer and helped Baptiste begin a public policy career, one that has earned him a 2016 STATEment Maker Award from the Iowa State University Alumni Association. The award honors young alumni who make a difference in ways that reflect the scholarly, entrepreneurial, or service-oriented spirit of an Iowa State education.
"I never would have thought I would become involved in politics," Baptiste said.
And by some odds, he might never have even gone to college.
"In my hometown in Hawaii, it was not common for people to go to college, and not everyone finishes high school,” he said. "There were a lot of emotions of not wanting to disappoint and of being the first in my family to get a college diploma.”
Baptiste attended a preparatory high school in Honolulu, Kamehameha Schools, founded by the last will and testament of Hawaii’s late Princess Pauahi to give Native Hawaiians better educational opportunities. At the top of his college list was one thing: he wanted an out-of-the-ordinary experience.
A Hawaii-to-Ames adventure fit the bill.
Though he had relatives in Ottumwa, Iowa, Baptiste had never set foot in Iowa until he arrived for his freshman year at Iowa State. Adjusting to the weather and off-island culture made for a tough first semester, he said.
Then he found his niche in the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity, which became his favorite student experience at Iowa State. As a Greek community member, Baptiste served on the Interfraternity Council, taking on leadership positions that prepared him for public policy work.
"Once I got to Capitol Hill, I realized how similar the work was to my work as a campus leader, just on a much larger scale," he said. "I really liked the way it translated and allowed me to give back to my home."
Lopaka Baptiste and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka pause for a photo in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing room, shortly before Sen. Akaka retired.
Baptiste went on to become a senior adviser to Sen. Akaka, with Native Hawaiian policy being one of his primary responsibilities. Following Sen. Akaka’s retirement, Baptiste worked in Native advocacy for a trade association, before returning to Hawaii to manage the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs in the state legislature. He recently began a new position in community engagement for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an agency that advocates on behalf of Native Hawaiians.
"My job in community outreach is to help Native Hawaiians understand legislative proposals and how legislation can affect their community and themselves as individuals,” he said. “I also work on voter engagement and empowerment to give Hawaiians better access to resources. This job is very in line with what I had done in the past and what I wanted to do going forward."
And going forward, he hopes his Iowa State education will inspire others.
“I'm one of the oldest grandchildren in my family, so I hope I've paved the way for my younger relatives to see that higher education exists and that they can take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “I came into my own at Iowa State with learning experiences both in and out of the classroom. Iowa State is my home away from home.”
Favorite ISU class: “I was fortunate to have had several classes with Barbara Mack, and they are some of my fondest classroom memories. Her classes were not just textbook teachings, but also life lessons. She was more than just a professor, but someone who I greatly respected, and someone who became a friend in the process.”
Something from college he can’t throw away: “As a fraternity member, I accumulated a great deal of t-shirts for different events, like Homecoming, Greek Week, and Veishea. I was having trouble parting with them, so a few years after I graduated, I had some of my favorite ones made into a t-shirt quilt.”
Proudest ISU moment: “It might seem cliché, but my proudest moment at Iowa State was graduating. I was excited to be moving onto the next chapter in my life, and not just sharing that moment with my family, but also sharing Iowa State with them for the first time.”
Advice for current students: “My advice for current students is to get out and be involved. Iowa State has so many great organizations, events, and traditions—take advantage of it all.”
Lopaka Baptiste is one of six 2016 STATEment Makers from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Meet more LAS STATEment Makers:
Jacob Wilson, political science and women's and gender studies '11