“I like being there for students…I’m a real people person, and I love working with [those who] really do some soul searching throughout the two years they are with us.” – Fele Uperesa, Class Manager, the San Francisco cohort of The Wharton MBA Program for Executives.

Students in the Wharton MBA Program for Executives juggle full-time jobs, family responsibilities, and coursework throughout their two-year program. Behind the scenes, the program’s class managers work hard to make it all possible. These dedicated Wharton staff members provide a wide range of support to students, faculty, and staff, from ordering textbooks and booking classroom space, to managing logistics for international class sessions such as Wharton’s Global Business Week.

As the School celebrates AAPI History Month in May and strives to uplift voices from both coasts of campuses, Wharton Stories is spotlighting Fele Uperesa, who is both a Wharton San Francisco cohort class manager and proud member of the Pacific Islander community. Fele shares more about her role and what she loves about Wharton.  

What brought you to The Wharton MBA Program for Executives?

I started working at Wharton in 2017 as an Administrative Coordinator, supporting the operations team and Wharton MBA Program for Executives staff in San Francisco. Eventually, I was brought on as an Associate Director, responsible for managing the program logistics and advising the 110 students who are members of EMBA’s San Francisco cohort. The students graduating in 2023 are my first class. I think I’m going to get emotional seeing them at graduation in their caps and gowns.

What is your favorite part of your class manager role?

I really enjoy advising students. I had a nontraditional path to my education, and there were people along the way who really helped me and supported my success. I like being there for students in this way; helping them make tough decisions, talking through what success looks like for them, and brainstorming ways to manage their time effectively. I’m a real people person and love working with our EMBA students. Students in this program really do some soul searching throughout the two years they are with us. 

Can you share more about your background?

I was born in American Samoa and lived there until I was eight years old. After my parents divorced, I split my time between American Samoa and San Diego, where my mother had family. I worked for ten years in the nonprofit space at organizations like AmeriCorps and Berkeley Boosters before earning my bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from UC Berkeley. Through the McNair and Haas Scholars Programs, I received a research scholarship to study the impact of trade policies and international development on health in American Samoa. I realized then how much I enjoyed working in an academic setting.

How has your Pacific Islander heritage shaped who you are today?

It’s important for me to be someone I would have looked up to when I was growing up. You know, be the change you want to see in the world. That’s very much what drives me, a sense of service. A lot of Pacific Islander students don’t see themselves in educational settings or leadership positions growing up. Although my parents were teachers and encouraged me to do well in school, I had a rocky time on the way to college. I remember meeting with a college counselor when I was a sophomore in high school. He barely looked at my transcript, and suggested I look into becoming a hairstylist after high school. There were other times that I had less than encouraging conversations with adults who worked in education. I had to advocate for myself to enroll in the classes I knew I should be in.

There can be a narrow perception of what Pacific Islanders can contribute to society. Often there’s a stereotype about the Pacific Islander body and what it can do, or what it’s meant for. I think men especially get typecast as “the athlete” and don’t get as much support to thrive academically.

This stereotype can be negative for the Pacific Islander community, but it has also provided lots of opportunities. Growing up in American Samoa, it seemed that there were only three ways to be successful off the island: education, football, or the military.My dad received a scholarship to play football at the University of Montana, where he was part of the only undefeated team in the school’s history. He went on to play professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles. As you can imagine, he loves Philadelphia, and was very excited when I started working at Wharton.

Historically, Pacific Islanders are navigators of the sea. We look at oceans as a way of connecting us instead of separating us, and that drive to search for opportunity is what makes us Pacific Islanders. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have their own cultures and histories, and it’s important to increase visibility of Pacific Islanders as part of the larger Asian-American Pacific Island community.

Fele’s father, Tu’ufuli Kalapu Uperesa, during his time playing for the Philadelphia Eagles

What advice can you give to Wharton EMBA students?

Reach out to the program early and often! The sooner we can build a rapport, the sooner I can learn what your goals are both within and beyond the Wharton MBA Program for Executives. This will help me advise you and develop a plan to help you manage your time effectively. Students in this program are working at least 40 hours a week and have families and other responsibilities. It’s important for them to start thinking early about prioritization, especially because our students are high achievers. They want to take on as much as they can; attend every networking event, take every course, double major, organize a class trip… part of my role is to help students structure their time, energy, and attention in ways that work for them. It’s a rigorous program, but students can still feel a sense of balance.

 — Kendra King 

Posted: May 3, 2023

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