Vai Sikahema discusses his journey from rejection to the Alumni Achievement Award in the School of Communications.
Vai Sikahema, Alumni Achievement Award recipient, came to BYU on a footballscholarship and, since then, has played running back and kick returner in the NFL, worked as a NBC morning news anchor, won several Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards and was featured in the Philadelphia Broadcast Pioneers’ Hall of Fame. However, Sikahema said his success has not come easily. “I struggled academically. I couldn’t get into any major at BYU because of my 2.0 GPA. No one would let me in! But I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t have let myself in either.”
At the 2018 College of Fine Arts and Communications Homecoming Lecture Vai Sikahema shared his BYU journey and discussed how hard work andservice can bring great success, even to those with humble beginnings.
Sikahema struggled with academics when he moved to Arizona from Tonga because he had to learn English, but he always succeeded physically. He competed in Golden Gloves tournaments and was recruited by his high school football team. “When I was in high school things were still hard as far as education, because every teacher I had was a coach. Their main purpose was just to keep me eligible to play football. At the time it was the greatest thing ever, but I never cracked a book open.”
“One person who really helped me was my mother’s visiting teacher. She was an English teacher at the high school, and she would meet with me every week. She would read to me and then discuss the things that we were reading. She also got me a spot on the school newspaper program. That is where I learned to express myself and write.” Sikahema repeated throughout his lecture that the service others gave him was essential to his success. “I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to replicate what Barbara Nielsen [his mother’s visiting teacher] did for me.”
When Sikahema came to BYU he continued to struggle academically, but said he learned some essential lessons that would continue to bless his life. “At BYU I learned things I could not have learned anywhere else. I went to Lavell and Patti Edwards’ house and I saw how they treated each other. I went to family home evening with professors at their homes and saw the love and faith they had in their families. Those were the critical things I learned at BYU.” After five years, Sikahema eventually left BYU without graduating, or even declaring a major.
Journalism had not been a part of Sikahema’s plan, but while working for the NFL he was approached to do work in television. “The media always appreciated that I gave thoughtful answers to their questions. I attribute thatto my mission and all the firesides I spoke at while attending BYU. I had learned to articulate and weave a narrative.” Sikahema worked on filming interviews with his teammates and started a series featuring NFL player’s houses. “The TV station went nuts, they couldn’t believe they were getting footage of NFL mansions.”
Sikahema did not have any academic experience working in media, but he was living with Dale Cressman, current professor in the School of Communications, at the time. Sikahema said, “I was always looking for ways I could get better. I would constantly ask for critique on my footage. I had never taken classes in broadcast journalism, but I had access to a professor!” After retiring from the NFL, Sikahema was hired by the then CBS-owned television station WCAU. “I had worked there for four or five years when someone at BYU called and said I should get my degree. I responded, ‘I’d love to, but you won’t let me in!’ They responded, ‘Well, we can help you with that.’” Sikahema graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism in 2002.
“I will summarize my last 25 years of work experience as this: work and service,” Sikahema stated. “I had a great work ethic, which is why I succeeded despite my academic struggles. I watched my parents work multiple jobs my whole life. They taught me to work hard at everything I did. I never let anyone outwork me. When there is something you want, you’ve got to understand there are thousands of people who want exactly what you want. So, what are you going to do to distinguish yourself? You’ve got to outwork everyone else.”
“I pray that you will work hard and think about what you are going to do to differentiate yourself. Think of the people who have served you and ask yourself how you are going to do that for others.”