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Isaac La'a

“I know how hard it was for me to transition back to normalcy,” says U.S. Army veteran Isaac La’a, who served a tour in Iraq before going back to college, “normal life after coming back from a war zone.” La’a will graduate Saturday with an associate’s degree from Missoula College and intends to enroll at the University of Montana and continue his work to make the lives of veterans better at Missoula College and UM.

Isaac La'a remembers being devastated to learn he would be called to duty to serve in Iraq.

La'a and his partner were watching the news in 2004 when former U.S. President George Bush announced members of the Individual Ready Reserves would be asked to do military tours in Iraq.

One week later, the Hawaii native got the call.

At the time, La'a was distraught, but now, he's working to make the lives of veterans better at Missoula College and the University of Montana.

"I know how hard it was for me to transition back to normalcy, normal life after coming back from a war zone," La'a said.

This week, La'a graduates with an associate degree from Missoula College, and he heads straight to UM to pursue a degree in education and mathematics as a nontraditional student.

Already, he's had an impact on those he's met on his educational path. Missoula College Dean Shannon O'Brien said La'a is a gentle soul with a sharp mind, and a person she's been honored to work with on campus.

"In the 22 years that I've been in this business, I have never had the privilege, the true privilege, of working with a student quite like Isaac," O'Brien said. "He not only takes care of his own academics, he is keenly interested in the success of his fellow students."

The future educator wants to instill in the classroom the discipline he learned in the military and cultural values he grew up with in Hawaii, such as unity and humility.

In the meantime, he'd like to bring some Pacific Islander influences to UM. He'd also like to help establish stronger ties among UM's campuses, the west campus, east campus, mountain campus, and Bitterroot College.

"The instructors I had made the learning experience awesome," La'a said of Missoula College. "The downfall to it (is) it almost seems like they're disconnected."

He hopes the opening of Missoula College on East Broadway will help reinforce at least that school's connection to the main campus.

***

La'a's family inspired him to complete his formal education and possibly seek a master's degree – and potentially a law degree.

His father died of cardiac arrest in 1990 at the age of 26, and his mother succumbed to thyroid cancer just some 12 years later at 39, only nine days after his grandfather passed.

"It was a huge financial and emotional stress," he said. "And I still miss them. So I think that's what pushed me to go back to school to finish off what they would want me to accomplish."

In 2007, La'a was discharged from the U.S. Army as sergeant after one combat tour.

From then until 2014, he and his partner, Ka'aumoana Ahina, ran a Hawaiian dance school in Portland, Oregon. Since his partner also worked as a hair stylist, La'a had to work on the business side and teach, and he loved the teaching and competitions around the West Coast.

"Hula is a different cultural dance than many other cultural dances out there, and the spiritual side ... gets you connected to the land," he said.

When his partner's mother died unexpectedly in Oregon, the couple decided it was time for a change. They headed to Missoula, where they have friends.

In Montana, La'a has gone from the ocean to the mountains, from the sun to the snow, and here, he feels completely at home.

"I love the weather. The rain in Portland was kind of depressing. I love the snow," said La'a, who played in the snow as a child in the Hawaiian mountains.

***

As a student, La'a was elected as a senator to the Associated Students of the University of Montana, and he served this school year.

"That senate seat allowed me to help a lot of veterans," La'a said.

One tangible improvement he fought for is a safer crossing near the VETS Office across the street from campus, at 1000 E. Beckwith. That little house is a safe haven for veterans with a lounge and computer lab.

"I pushed and pushed and pushed last semester, so they're finally going to put a crosswalk to slow down on that corner," La'a said.

In the future, he'd like to see more services for veterans on the physical Missoula College campus. He ran for ASUM vice president this year, and he didn't win, but he'll have plenty of time to continue his efforts to connect veterans to the help they need.

"Right now, we have to come to the vet center here on the mountain campus. And that's probably one of the downfalls to a lot of vets," he said.

He'd like to see funding for a staff member to be on site at Missoula College to answer questions for veterans in the future. Just this week, he attended a dinner intended to recruit veterans, and he had a message of encouragement for them.

"Basically, don't be afraid," La'a said.

La'a also wants to ensure other veterans know the financial benefits of their service. For instance, the educational benefit funds 50 percent of the cost of in state tuition, though La'a is still considered out of state.

"I still have to come up with the other half, which the loans and everything cover," he said.

He doesn't mind taking out the loans because teachers have access to loan forgiveness.

As an older student who has hit the books with older teens, people as young as 18, La'a also offers insight to veterans about how to make the transition back to education.

***

In the military, La'a was on a strict and regimented schedule, and in hula, he enforced attention to detail in head-to-toe presentation. As a teacher, La'a wants to incorporate those values into the classroom.

"As a future educator in math, I can push my students to be more detail-oriented in their math," La'a said.

At first, La'a thought he might go into accounting, but his childhood best friend reminded him how much they both loved math and encouraged him to teach it.

The other day, a lawyer from the Montana Attorney General's Office told La'a he would make a good lawyer with his analytical mathematical skills, and now, the idea is on his radar for the future.

Sooner, he plans to start a Pacific Islanders Club on campus and host a luau serving traditional food, with tickets going toward scholarships for native and indigenous students.

"Along the West Coast, a lot of universities have annual luaus that they put on at their campuses," La'a said.

***

This week, he'll celebrate graduation quietly, after having cooked up a delectable meal to thank supporters of his campaign. Then, he'll work this summer at the Hackney Athletic Equipment Center helping the athletes before returning to school in the fall.

Even as he transitions to the main campus, La'a intends to continue to help nontraditional students and veterans at Missoula College.

Dean O'Brien, for one, said she has absolutely no doubt he will make good on his pledge. He has a unique track record of dedication to students and fostering a link between the student body and faculty, she said.

"He has been committed – every day," O'Brien said. "He's committed to helping others on a daily basis and a consistent basis." 

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