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Laie-raised BYUH alumna graduates from law school with aspirations to become president of the United States

Sala McCarthy-Stonex stands in front of the BYU MPA sign in graduation attire.

She finished at Kahuku High School as a junior. She finished her undergraduate studies at BYU–Hawaii in two years. Now, just months before her 23rd birthday, she has graduated from BYU Law School with her juris doctorate degree (JD) and master's of public affairs (MPA).

Through it all, Sala McCarthy-Stonex said she has stood by the claim she made as an “angsty” 14-year-old girl that she would one day become president of the United States. 

“Why not me? That’s kind of where I’m always working from: If I can do it, why can’t anyone else? I’ve been in many situations already where I’ve done it [and thought] ‘Why not keep on doing it?’ Then others who are like me can see someone who looks like them and … it’ll inspire them to think outside of what the world has already ingrained in them.”

A tribute to mum

McCarthy-Stonex is more than 6-feet tall and possesses Maori, Hawaiian, Samoan, German, Irish and English ancestry.

“People are always fascinated to see what I am. I am very ethnically ambiguous looking. When I travel, people always assume I’m one of theirs, but just a freakishly tall one of theirs.” 

McCarthy-Stonex shared how she sees her diverse cultural background as an advantage, including the time she spent being raised on a Navajo reservation for a few years when she was young. “It was amazing to be surrounded by a culture so different from mine, but also so richly preserved and respected. That’s kind of shaped the way I view the world, seeing culture as not something divisive, but something that can bring us together.” 

She explained even though she wasn’t raised in New Zealand, the Maori and Hawaiian culture are a part of her identity and she takes great pride in it. One aspect that has been imprinted on McCarthy-Stonex is the prioritizing of family, especially her elders.

She shared the main reason she was quick to complete all of her schooling was so she could be prepared to help take care of her mom when the time came.

Hanatea Elkington, McCarthy-Stonex’s good friend since elementary school, said, “[Sala’s] relationship with her mom is really good. They're really funny together. Her mom is a really strong independent woman who raised her girls pretty much by herself, with the help of the community.” 

Sala McCarthy-Stonex and her mother dressed in winter clothes with a building in the background.


Elkington added she remembered her friend talking about paying bills when she was in seventh grade and always putting her family first.

Ema Pili, McCarthy-Stonex’s older sister, agreed she has always been responsible and “mature beyond her years.

“I really do think that there’s this weird stigma or misconception that because you’re crazy smart and you have this agenda to live out all these amazing things and take on all these opportunities, that you become boring or stuck in your books. And that’s totally not who Sala is. She’s very passionate about what she’s learning and about making sure that things are taken care of. She’s very responsible and always has been.” 

McCarthy-Stonex explained how “family is your first and only priority, aside from God and your best friends. For me, the motivating factor was [my mom] has taken care of me my whole life, and I want to return the favor.

“I just wanted to be able to get my mom relaxed. She's worked literally for 55-plus years and helped so many people, so I wanted to help her. I always knew I would be the one that would take care of her between my sister and I.” 

I just wanted to be able to get my mom relaxed. She's worked literally for 55-plus years and helped so many people, so I wanted to help her.
Sala McCarthy-Stonex


Pili said despite losing their father when they were very young, their mother provided a more than comfortable lifestyle for her and her sister. “[My mom] really valued and believed in education. Out of nowhere she lost her spouse, and it was not really a problem for her to pick up a good-paying job to support her family because she's a very educated, established woman. So, she's always set that bar for us as her children.”

From front desk to oval office 

 

Sala McCarthy-Stonex dressed in graduation clothes at BYU.


When she realized most seniors in high school had a lighter course load, McCarthy-Stonex said she thought, “That’s pointless.” She decided she would take all the credits she needed to graduate by the end of her junior year. 

In one of those final classes, McCarthy-Stonex said she studied the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, and that’s when the idea to become president first came to her.

“Nerdy little me just reading the Constitution … [I thought] that’d be cool, to be in a leadership position where you can impact a lot of lives. And I know that’s a lot of different fields, but I feel like politics and the law were what drew me to it.” 

She explained she loves grassroots and one-on-one helping and working with people, but recognized the need to further her skill set. “I realized it can be futile at times if you don’t have the necessary groundwork policy, leadership and management skills. You can have a good project on the ground, but if there’s nothing in the minutiae and the policy, then it can't be sustainable, or it can be easily countered and shut down.”

McCarthy-Stonex’s first job was working the front desk in the Aloha Center at BYUH. From there, she moved on to vice president of the Student Advisory Council, her first administrative job, as a 17 year old working with married colleagues in their mid-20s. 

“It was a huge learning curve, but [my supervisors] were all super supportive and really helpful in teaching me the ropes, but also giving me a lot of free rein to take my own perspective and figure out projects that I wanted to work on.

“I grew a lot in that time. It was only a year, but I learned so many different skills that were really advantageous to my professional development.”

Sala McCarthy-Stonex sits in front of a waterfall.


In order to graduate from BYUH in two years, McCarthy-Stonex said she averaged about 22 credits per semester but still managed to get decent grades. When her original career plans didn’t pan out due to her young age, she began to consider law school.

Elkington said she has always admired her friend’s determination. “Sala always puts her mind to these huge goals and she accomplishes them in ways that I never would have expected.

“She doesn’t let people step on her toes. I feel she’s gotten better at that because she does it in a way that’s very loving, but she accomplishes exactly what she puts her mind to and she doesn’t let people get in her way.” 

McCarthy-Stonex added after doing a lot of bottom-up work, she wanted to try her hand at top-down, higher level kind of work. “When you look at it, a lot of it can be very intimidating because of the language they use, and the field is dominated by a certain demographic that seems exclusive to many people. But I was like, ‘You know what? I'm used to being that person who sticks out, so why not me?’” 

YOLO and trust in the Lord 

Sala McCarthy-Stonex poses for a photo with a desert landscape in the background.


McCarthy-Stonex said the biggest thing her mom has instilled in her is to trust in the Lord. She shared a memory she had of her mom when she was a teenager and they were driving to Kaneohe. 

“She randomly said to me, ‘Hon, no matter what happens, no matter what happens to me, what happens to you, remember to always put your trust in the Lord.’ And that’s kind of where I’ve always operated. I added my twist: YOLO [you only live once] and trust in the Lord.” 

At age 16, McCarthy-Stonex said she had her five-year plan all laid out and had no trouble seeing the bigger picture. During a school break before graduating from BYUH, McCarthy-Stonex said she was staying with her grandpa in New Zealand when she found out her initial plan would be stalled due to her age.

Although a political science major, she said at the time she had no plans of becoming a lawyer. As she prayed and thought about it, McCarthy-Stonex said the thought popped into her head, “Why not law school?” Within five months from the day she decided to go to law school, she had taken the LSAT and was accepted at J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU.  

“I have the bigger goals, but in between, I’m always up for any changes,” explained McCarthy-Stonex.

“If you're doing good things, and you take the leap of faith, which is the YOLO part, when it seems like you don't know what you're doing, if you have so much faith and trust in God and Christ, then He’ll see you through.”