Trusting in the Lord and finding his purpose in life has helped this BYUH student succeed in finding eternal happiness
Upon coming to Hawaii, Vilai Ilolahia, mostly known as “Junior,” said he never planned to attend BYU–Hawaii nor become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said although he grew up in the Methodist faith, his non-LDS mother urged him to join the Church.
“It just surprised me that my mom had such an impression to tell me to [get] baptized into this Church. It was a life-changing moment.”
Ilolahia, a freshman from Tonga studying political science, said he moved to Laie, Hawaii, in November 2019, seeking the opportunity and experience to live in the United States.
He shared he was attending the online Vanuatuan law school USP Emalus Campus School of Law while living with his uncle in Laie, which was challenging due to time zone differences. As a result, he added, he failed his classes and didn’t see any success from trying to pursue an education during the pandemic.
Ilolahia said schooling was no longer a priority because he became depressed, homesick and lost all motivation. While attending school online, Ilolahia said he worked as a photographer for “Magic Memories,” a photography company at the Polynesian Cultural Center and as a temporary cook for BYUH Food Services.
While working at the BYUH cafeteria, he said he met and began bonding with a group of Tongan students. He said hearing their stories about school inspired him to apply to BYUH in June 2021.
Upon attending BYUH, Ilolahia said he knew he’d be surrounded by members of the Church. He said he felt like an outsider because he couldn’t relate to the spiritual experiences and testimonies his friends would share.
Despite his fear, he said God had a plan for him and he realized the Lord works in mysterious ways.
From friendship to fellowship
Alfred Kapeli, a junior biochemistry major from Tonga, said he met Ilolahia during the pandemic while hanging out at the Hale Pavilion. When he learned Ilolahia was Tongan and wasn’t a member, he said he asked him if he had met with the missionaries before but Ilolahia expressed no interest.
Following their first interaction, Kapeli said he befriended Ilolahia and would invite him to social activities with his friends. He said they would say prayers before meals and go on hikes, and it made Ilolahia realize how important the gospel is to him and his friends and that Heavenly Father watches over them.
On one occasion, Kapeli said he invited Ilolahia to attend Church with him, which Ilolahia declined. However, Kapeli said that didn’t discourage him and he messaged him later asking him if he’d like to accompany him on his walk to Church. Kapeli said Ilolahia accepted his invitation and decided to come. Later, Kapeli learned Ilolahia had been meeting with a pair of sister missionaries referred by his uncle, a bishop of one of the local wards.
Kapeli said he and the missionaries taught Ilolahia for an entire year, and Ilolahia grew more interested in gospel principles. However, he said Ilolahia did not want to disobey his parents, who were of the Methodist faith and who didn’t want him to get baptized. Kapeli said he and the missionaries gave him time to pray and ponder about his decision.
Ilolahia cares and loves his family very much, Kapeli said. While teaching him at the temple, he said Ilolahia was interested in the principle of families being sealed in the temple. He said he told Ilolahia by accepting the gospel, he can be with his family forever. He said Ilolahia expressed his love for his family and said he wanted to be with them forever. “On that night, it also helped him know there’s no other way but to join the gospel,” shared Kapeli.
A mother’s impression
Initially, Ilolahia said he while he was never impressed to join the church, he decided to meet with the missionaries when he was struggling with depression. “For me, it was more of just trying to figure out what life was for me.” The missionaries kept urging him to pray about the truth of the principles being taught, he said.
Ilolahia said he would get annoyed by the constant invitations, having said no to eight sets of missionaries. Despite his annoyance, he said missionaries kept visiting him. “Call it perseverance, if you will.”
At one point, Ilolahia said he prayed and began shedding tears, asking God for help. He said joining the Church was something he thought about but didn’t anticipate happening anytime soon. One day, he said his mother surprisingly told him he should get baptized.
Ilolahia said his mother worried about his depressed state and told him joining the Church would bless his life. Still today, he said he could not understand why his Methodist mother received the revelation, when he was the one meeting with the missionaries.
He never found out why his mother experienced a change of heart, he explained. Eventually, he said he spoke to his bishop and was scheduled to be baptized on Oct. 24, 2021.
Although he invited only 10 people to his baptism, Ilolahia said half of the chapel was full and there were a lot of people supporting his baptism. “It was a surreal moment for sure, but a really humbling one.”
When Ilolahia said he was getting baptized, Kapeli said it was an answer to his prayer. He said he informed Ilolahia this would be one of the most difficult choices he’ll ever make. At his baptism, Kapeli said he acted as a witness and became emotional and shed tears upon seeing Ilolahia get baptized.
He said it makes him happy seeing Ilolahia interacting with other members of the Church. “I’ve worked with the sisters for almost two years of getting him baptized into the Church … It’s just amazing to see the changes in him.”
Dorothy Tonga, a sophomore biology major from Tonga, said she met Ilolahia while she was serving as a missionary in Laie. Upon meeting each other, she learned she and Ilolahia were distant cousins, she added. She said he is very courageous being the first in his immediate family to accept the gospel.
“It was him trying to learn for himself to really figure out if this is something that he wanted for his life, instead of just doing it because everybody else here does it.”
Tonga said Ilolahia would always credit his family and the sacrifice they made for him to where he is today. She said his example has taught her to be mindful of the sacrifices that have been made for her.
A new perspective
Ilolahia said getting baptized taught him the power of invitation and having the desire to serve others. He said he enjoys listening to different stories from students, he said. “You can never know what someone is going through unless you’ve been through it yourself.”
Kapeli said Ilolahia is an amazing person and is sensitive to the needs of others. He said he is the type of person who will make sure people are happy and smiling. His example, he shared, teaches him to be positive, humble and kind to other people.
Ilolahia always seeks the good in everyone and doesn’t judge them, shared Tonga. “I think that’s why everyone loves him and everyone loves his energy and presence.” She said she’s the oldest in her family, so she never experienced what it is like to have older siblings, but Ilolahia filled in that place. “[He] has become like an older brother to me here.”
Being accepted to BYUH was a blessing, and it changed his perspective on the students, said Ilolahia. Initially, he said his perspective of BYUH rooted in it just being a Church school. However, he said despite his initial resentment, he realized it doesn’t make a difference if you are a member or not. BYUH opens up opportunities for everybody and everyone here is still figuring out their lives for themselves, he explained. “A lot of my pride has gone away because I’ve actually discovered the truth behind this wonderful campus we call BYU–Hawaii.”
Having attended BYUH for three semesters, Ilolahia said he’s still learning about the people. He shared it’s not about trying to be the perfect member or having many friends, but being the person God expects him to be.
“I, and most of my friends who influenced me in this school, have been shaped by this gospel, this Church and this whole foundation of academics … . It’s magical.”