Cassandra Puletapuai

Cassandra Puletapuai feels a certain kinship with wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, otherwise known as The Rock. And with rocks in general.

As Puletapuai (pronounced POOH-lay-TAH-pooh-WHY) says of her Samoan heritage, “We don’t have many role models, if you will.” By pursuing success as a carpenter, “I’m hoping to show my Polynesian brothers and sisters, ‘Hey, this one is for us. This is possible,’ ” she adds. “Because we just have The Rock.”

Coincidentally, she’s a former geologist. After getting a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City, Puletapuai worked on prestigious projects for engineering and hydrogeology firms nationwide. But in that profession, she realized, the only path to progress was a lot more time in school taking classes.

“It wasn’t where I wanted to be,” she says. “It’s not where I wanted to grow.”

Talking with a couple of her friends who were welders, “I noticed, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you guys are surpassing me in your income. You have no student debt, and you’re able to sit at the table with me.’

“I did kind of one of those steps back, analyzed my life, and that’s when I realized, ‘Wow, you guys have all this advancement, upward mobility, the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and start your own business.’ That’s when I started scouting technical training.”

A self-described Army brat, Puletapuai was born in Germany and had lived in Illinois, Texas and Virginia before settling in Leawood, Kan.

“My favorite TV show when I was little was ‘Home Improvement,’ like Bob Villa, and I loved Heidi,” she remembers, referring to the comedy’s “Tool Girl” character. “It’s so funny how that ended up. I was like, ‘Hey, wake up! I need to be them.’ ”

After coming across Kansas City Kansas Community College, “I started looking around at what I wanted to do, and I was just drawn to carpentry,” Puletapuai says. After seeing what the program offered —building a house — she knew “that’s what I definitely want to do.”

Like a metamorphic rock, Puletapuai admits she was “a little rough” at first. “I’d never picked up a hammer; I’d never sawed anything.” But after becoming more polished, her creative nature drew her to design and the perfectionism it requires. “For women, we have that natural attention to detail, which is what carpentry is all about and geared to,” she explains.

A Rock-Solid Platform

In the carpentry program, Puletapuai says she was “motivated by not only the mechanics of what’s offered on the technical side but definitely the personal and the professional skills that are offered.” As a SkillsUSA member, she was elected to state office and competed nationally in Extemporaneous Speaking.

“The networking is immense,” she describes the most recent SkillsUSA conference in Louisville, Ky. “Just by being at this conference, I’ve met other carpenters, other teachers, who are willing to share their knowledge with me. They’re like, ‘How are you doing? Do you know how to do this?’ or ‘Hey, look me up.’ I love that, because at a university I felt it was very ‘sink or float’ and very closed off, like, ‘I know more than you.’ I didn’t like that.” Now, she adds, “I feel the connections I’ve made are very genuine.”

Being a SkillsUSA leader has given her a platform to encourage more women to go into carpentry. “I became an advocate as I got further and further into my education,” she says. At her school’s career day, her words have resonated with female visitors. Others are listening, too, from state legislators to middle-school girls.

As for future plans, “I will continue to be an advocate for SkillsUSA, volunteer,” she adds. “I also want to start my own business and be an entrepreneur.

“I’m already ready to go and build buildings,” the student asserts. “No, I’m realistic with my goals, but slowly but surely, I know I would probably start with remodeling, slowly start there and then probably get into new construction.”

To help her neighbors attain the American Dream, Puletapuai wants to offer quality homes at an affordable price. She also dreams of a faraway place and lifting its residents out of poverty — something even The Rock can’t do.

“I made this promise: If I am successful, I will definitely go back to American Samoa and teach my own Polynesian brothers and sisters how to do a trade in carpentry, so they can get off the island or make a living there,” she says.