From NYU Shanghai to State House: Jackson’s Journey

In one short year, Jackson Sayama went from Chinese Global Studies major to the youngest member of the Hawaii House of Representatives

Jackson Sayama wearing a suit and smiling for a photo

Jackson Sayama graduated from NYU Shanghai in 2019 with a degree in Global China Studies and a desire to make a difference. That summer, he moved back home to Honolulu. There, he planned to focus on community service while pursuing his Master’s in Public Administration at the University of Hawaii. One year later, he’s the youngest member of the Hawaii House of Representatives after winning 75 percent of votes in his district.

From Shanghai to Capitol Hill

As an NYU Shanghai student, Jackson began laying the groundwork for a career in public service early on. Despite spending his first two years taking business and finance classes to get “a good job,” he eventually majored in Global China Studies. The interdisciplinary major explores China’s socio-economic, cultural, and political place in the world. Unsurprisingly, Jackson chose to focus on politics and international relations. “For current students, trust me when I say, take the courses you enjoy and your success will follow,” he advises.

Outside of the classroom, Jackson took on leadership roles in Student Government and spent his junior year studying away in Washington, DC. There, he took classes at night while interning with Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz as part of NYU’s Global Leadership Scholarship. The internship gave him invaluable hands-on experience in the daily workings of DC. Further, it inspired him to run for student government when he returned to Shanghai.

During his senior year, Jackson was elected director of the Student Organization Committee. With responsibility for 40+ clubs across campus, he got a crash course in management and budgeting that would prove priceless later on. “The Student Organization Committee taught me so much,” he affirms. “Running my own team and managing hundreds of students and a large budget was invaluable for my development as a leader.”

Jackson Sayama outside campaigning with a volunteer for his run as a Hawaii House Representative

The Right Time to Run

When Jackson headed back to Hawaii post-graduation, he looked forward to reconnecting with his childhood friends. However, few were returning to their home state: with the highest cost of living in the US, Hawaii was no longer a practical option. Once he was settled back in, Jackson decided to be part of the solution in his hometown of St. Louis Heights. Accordingly, he dove back into public service. He joined his local neighborhood board and began conducting outreach with local houseless communities. At the same time, he learned that his district’s house representative was running for city council. That would leave the seat open for the first time in 43 years. It felt like a sign.

Within days, Jackson energetically launched his grassroots campaign. “Hawaii campaigning is about how many doors you can knock on and how many hours you can stand in the sun waving at cars. And this is especially true for a 22-year-old fresh college graduate with no name recognition,” he explains. In August, the NYU Shanghai alum won the Democratic primary. Then, on November third, he won the election.

A Hawaii for Everyone

Despite his youth, none of Jackson’s NYU peers were surprised by his win. “Jackson is a natural-born leader who truly cares and believes in his cause. NYU Shanghai is lucky to have him as a role model,” affirms Taylah Bland ’21. She is the NYU Shanghai Student Government Association President. “Now, his unwavering commitment to student government has followed him into his professional career. It’s truly inspiring.”

Next, Jackson looks forward to tackling his main goals: supporting Hawaii’s recovery from COVID-19, addressing houselessness, and strengthening public education. He also hopes to mitigate the impacts of climate change. “It’s really exciting to think about how I can make a difference in the community that I was born and raised in,” he says. “In the end, I love Hawaii. I love the people here, and I wanted to serve.”