Martina Sagapolu ’88 helps enforce ocean regulations
When she first entered Central College in Pella, Iowa, in the early 1980s, Martina Sagapolu’s interest was largely in political science. However, as she quickly found out from one of her professors, she was woefully behind in her knowledge of current events, and it would require a lot of hours to get on par with most of the other students on campus.
“I grew up in American Samoa so our AP News and television broadcasts were all pre-recorded and two weeks late,” says Sagapolu ’88. “So, when I arrived on campus, I learned for the first time that a woman (Kathryn D. ‘Kathy’ Sullivan) had just gone to space, yet that happened at least a month prior to my arrival.”
Sagapolu, though, wasn’t late in choosing a major. Because her heroine was the fictional teenage sleuth Nancy Drew when she was growing up in Pago Pago, she decided to pursue a degree in Criminal Justice. After spending a bitterly cold winter in Iowa, the American Samoan native decided to leave Central College for Chaminade University of Honolulu.
“Central College was in the middle of nowhere,” Sagapolu says. “I remember there were only 19 minorities on the entire campus. One of the first mornings I woke up in the dorm, I could smell someone cooking SPAM and rice, and I knew that person had to be from Hawaii. It turned out there were three girls from Kauai and we’ve all kept in touch ever since.”
Now wholly committed to the Criminal Justice major, Sagapolu decided to participate in a U.S. Department of Justice co-op program that the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had just rolled out. The program was designed to attract talented individuals—particularly college students—to gain work experience and potentially pursue careers in government service as civil servants. Students were provided with opportunities for internships or part-time employment during the academic year, as well as full-time employment during summer breaks.
“The pilot program started in San Diego and then came to Chaminade,” Sagapolu recalls. “There were seven of us who decided to participate, and we first had to travel to Arizona for a one-week training period.”
With the mentorship of such professors as Dr. Greg Mark and Dr. Mel Masuda who helped Sagapolu with her writing skills, the future Criminal Justice graduate was well on her way to becoming part of the law enforcement field. Meanwhile, she was nearing graduation and eyeing a position with INS. Because of her participation in the co-op program, she could be fast tracked through the usually slow federal hiring process, skipping the civil servant exam, interviews and other required bureaucratic steps.
“I graduated on December 8, 1988,” Sagapolu recalls, “and I was sworn in on January 3, 1989. There was no time to holoholo.”
Five years in as an INS agent, Sagapolu received a call from one of the students who also participated in the same INS co-op program, asking if she was interested in working in the Field Office of the National Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in American Samoa. Returning home had always appealed to Sagapolu but she had her reservations about moving from one federal agency to another.
“It was going to be a huge learning curve,” Sagapolu says. “I was going to go from chasing illegal immigrants to investigating infractions in the ocean. Going to fisheries was definitely intimidating.”
But as dedicated Sagapolu was to INS, she has been fiercely entrenched with NOAA for more than two decades. As the Administration’s Assistant Director for the Pacific Islands Division’s Office of Law Enforcement, Sagapolu oversees the protection and management of the largest geographic area of NOAA’s five divisions. The Pacific Islands, comprised of American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, the Northern Mariana Islands, and other U.S. Pacific Islands, span a total of 583,000 square miles of ocean, teeming with marine wildlife and dotted with sanctuaries, including Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
“In concert with the Coast Guard, and other federal and state agencies, our mission is to ensure the laws and regulations protecting and conserving our nation’s marine resources are followed,” Sagapolu says. “I also serve as an enforcement advisor to domestic and international stakeholders on enforcement-related matters.”
She’s now also updated on the world’s current events.