As she addressed the school community on April 2, 2022, Pua-Noa Higginson ’09 found it a bit strange to be back at Middlesex, giving a formal speech in front of teachers who “once taught me and helped me navigate what was ultimately a transformational high school experience.” Now a graduate student pursuing a career in biotechnology, she admitted that the outward appearance of “this whole woman with her life together” was a little at odds with her personal feeling that her journey is just beginning. With poise and humor, she talked about her path so far, which has led to a deeper understanding of her own identity in the years since she graduated.
While living and attending schools in Europe because of her father’s career, Pua observed that she had often felt like an “only,” an outsider who was bullied for everything from her Samoan first name and curly hair to her athleticism and love of hip-hop. “I vowed to myself that at Middlesex, things would be different,” she recalled, and consequently arrived as a “sassy” freshman who defined her identity by finding “every excuse to talk about being Samoan.” In retrospect, Pua realized, “I relied so heavily on the narrative of being Samoan that I ignored both the other components of my identity as well as the other ‘onlys’ in the room.”
This became apparent to her years later when she met an amazing woman through good friends. “I was awestruck, and I couldn’t understand why,” Pua related, which led to her questioning, “Who am I? What do I not know about myself?” With loving friends and family to support her through her self-discovery, Pua found the courage to come out to them, to introduce them to her girlfriend, and to be “as visible as I am in this very moment.”
Given her own experience, Pua encouraged everyone to “listen, observe, connect, and lead with empathy” and to recognize that “a safe space is only as safe as those with privilege make it to be.” To anyone identifying with the LGBTQIA+ community who feels the need to stay silent, she advised, “Take the time you need in your self-discovery,” additionally affirming that they deserve to be seen and heard – and to “live authentic lives of compassion, integrity, and action,” as Pua strives to do.