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Prime Minister of Tonga Visits the UW

Siaosi Sovaleni, the Prime Minister of Tonga addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2022. He spoke to world leaders about the global problems of the climate crisis and emphasized that rising seas and stronger ocean storms are not just troubling to the people of Polynesia, but it is catastrophic to their way of life. Before his speech at the UN, Prime Minister Sovaleni was in Hawaii meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman and after spent five days in Salt Lake City, UT, meeting with regional leaders, including touring Brigham Young University and the well known Family History Library.

On his continued tour, the Prime Minister and first lady Fiona Sovalei next traveled to Washington State where he visited the Burke Museum and the University of Washington.

Arriving at the Burke Museum, Prime Minster Sovaleni and his entourage were greeted by notable community members, leadership and staff from the Burke Museum and the UW, UW students with ties to the island nation, and a welcoming line of anthropology students lining the pathway into the museum. Once inside, the group was given a guided tour of select exhibits and were shown the collection of Tongan history on display inside. The Prime Minister, the first lady, and others in the delegation took time to stand in front of several displays and explain to those gathered the history, use, and significance of several items to the history of Tonga and their customs and traditions.

The group was then escorted to the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center where the Prime Minister and his guests were welcomed with remarks from community leaders, students and Vice President Rickey Hall. Prime Minister Sovaleni spoke to the audience and shared his hopes for continued partnerships between the UW and the country of Tonga, especially in light of the establishment of the kingdom’s first national university, currently under construction. Students wishing to pursue higher education have always had to leave home and study abroad. The new university will allow Tongans to study at home, and is seen as many as a solution to the financial, social and emotional stresses Tonga’s international students experience with they travel for studies.

He also shared his joy in meeting the Tongan students studying at the UW, and remarked on the support the students receive from the University. “It is great to be a student at a university. It’s much better when you have a support structure like you have here.”

The meeting was paused while the Prime Minister Sovaleni attended a virtual cabinet meeting from the Kelly ECC conference room, but his time with students and staff quickly resumed where he continued asking more about the University and answering questions from those in attendance. Many of the students thanked the world leader for his visit. The common sentiment from Tongan students and staff alike was that they now felt a little less isolated from their Polynesian community and that the Prime Minister, “brought a little piece of home, here to Seattle.”


Burke Museum

Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center