When Melanie Legdesog Veltri originally came to Chaminade University as an undergraduate from Micronesia, her plan was to get a degree and then go back home to help her community. She wasn’t expecting to find a Micronesian community in Hawai‘i that needed her just as much.
Veltri had always wanted to attend university in Hawai‘i, and she was attracted to Chaminade’s small class sizes and intimate community.
“My parents and I both thought it would be a good transition after coming from a small place,” explains Veltri. And they were right. Veltri found a home at Chaminade. “I had just moved here and I didn’t know anything about what living in the U.S. was like—I really learned from Chaminade. I took a lot in since I was so young and impressionable.”
It wasn’t long before Veltri became a very active member of the Chaminade ‘ohana and Campus Ministry.
She graduated in 2006 with a degree in criminology and criminal justice, and immediately got a job working in the Records office on campus. She also enrolled in the master’s in Criminal Justice Administration program and would go to classes in the evenings.
She really liked the perspective she gained through the master’s program, and the fact that so many of her peers were already professionals in the criminal justice field.
“I was able to take classes with people who were professionals, a lot of military members who did various things and were able to contribute to whatever we were studying academically,” describes Veltri. “Hearing from their first-hand experience gave me a whole other level of learning.”
But her plan had always been to become an attorney—Micronesia needed lawyers and doctors and her plan at the time was to go back home to help her community. So after graduating in 2008 with her master’s degree, she left her job in the Records office and enrolled in law school.
“I didn’t really see myself doing business law or working in an office, I wanted to do something that directly impacts people,” says Veltri. “Becoming a public defender is what I was interested in since the beginning.”
Upon becoming a J.D. in 2012, she spent some time working for the Hawai‘i State Legislature as a staff attorney for the House Judiciary Committee while she waited for a position as a public defender to open up. She wanted to get some work experience and utilize her networks in Hawaii before she headed back home. Luckily, she didn’t have to wait long, and by 2013 she had landed her dream job.
Veltri was drawn to working with underserved and underrepresented communities. She spends her days advising people who normally wouldn’t have access to an attorney or be able to afford legal advice. She helps them navigate a very complex and often overwhelming legal system.
“If I didn’t give them advice, they’d be lost,” describes Veltri. “It’s overwhelming for them. But when I help, I can see their appreciation.”
Veltri sees firsthand that the biggest issues on O‘ahu are the prevalence of drugs and the high levels of homelessness.
“People just can’t pay for rent and can’t get stable,” says Veltri. “We have a drug problem here that keeps people cycling in and out of the jail system. Especially with the rising cost of housing, I don’t see this problem solving itself in the near future.”
Veltri doesn’t know what the solution is on a policy level, but she knows that the work she’s doing is making a difference for the people who are struggling.
“If it’s a drug issue, maybe I can help divert them to the right program,” says Veltri. “Or if it’s a mental health problem, I can direct them to case management. I guess I’m trying to do something about the problem in a way that I know how. For me, it’s how I know how to help and it’s how I can contribute to the solution.”
Veltri says she draws on her Chaminade experiences and education all the time. She shares a lot of the values that Chaminade instills and she has taken those into all aspects of her professional life. She embodies the Marianist focus on community service and does what she can to serve her community wherever she is.
But Chaminade has also shaped her personal life. She and her husband got married at Chaminade, and her son was baptised at the Mystical Rose Oratory. She also encouraged her siblings to follow in her footsteps and attend Chaminade.
“I keep getting drawn back to Chaminade and I want to maintain that connection,” says Veltri. “It has had such a profound influence on who I am today. A lot of the decisions I make, I just keep coming back to Chaminade.”
So much of her network in Hawai‘i is because of Chaminade.
“It is very much a family-oriented school,” says Veltri. “You just feel this connection with your peers and classmates. The classes were so small, I know of my classmates—a lot of them are in the criminal justice field—and I still see them in the community. I guess it’s just, we grew up together.”
The tight-knit community is part of what has kept Veltri in Hawai‘i. But the fact that Veltri has found so much need in Hawai‘i has also kept her in the islands longer than she had planned.
“When I initially came out here to go to school, my goal was always to go back home and to help my community,” says Veltri. “But ever since I started doing the work I’m doing I find it hard to leave.”
Veltri has found that even though she’s miles away from home, she’s still helping her community. A 1986 agreement between the Federated State of Micronesia and the United States provides Micronesians with the ability to work, study and live freely in the U.S, and today, Micronesians are Hawai‘i’s fastest growing immigrant population. In 2018, it was estimated that there were 18,000 Micronesians living in Hawai‘i, and that number was growing rapidly.
At work, Veltri is involved in a project to support the Micronesian community. Through the program she works with legal aid, immigration attorneys and legal clinics to help educate the community.
“The most recent project had to do with all of these emergency order violations and violating quarantine,” says Veltri. “They were just ticketing everyone and a lot of people in the Micronesian community were getting these tickets and didn’t know what to do with them.”
To help educate the Micronesian community about new laws and regulations, they have started partnering with community leaders and relying on them to help disperse information. Recently, they held a virtual Q&A session to answer questions about the new regulations.
“It’s a project that I’m proud to be part of,” says Veltri. “We’re becoming more and more active and people are starting to reach out to us to ask for help.”
Veltri still does want to go home at some point, but not until she feels like her work here is done. “There’s still a lot to do, and there are still a lot of ways that I can help where I am,” she says. “I love that I get to help the Micronesian community—those are my people and that’s where I come from.”