Throughout Federal Security Director Nanea Vasta’s 16-year TSA career, she has learned to embrace life’s journey.
“Everyone wants to know what your future plan is, but I gave up on my plan a long time ago,” Vasta said. “Early in my career, I thought this or that is my plan. My faith is very important to me, and looking back at my life and my career, every time I made a plan, I think God has laughed at me and said, ‘Oh, that’s really cute, your plan, but actually you are going to do this.’ And it ends up being so much better.”
In 2007, Vasta started her TSA career as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) in Philadelphia after leaving her home state of Hawaii for the nation’s East Coast.
“To be completely honest, I did not know TSA was going be my lifelong profession,” Vasta explained. “But once I started seeing all the opportunities available to me, I was just blown away at how much TSA does and how important the mission is.”
Within a short time, she went from being a TSO on the front-lines to a security training instructor behind the scenes.
A pivotal moment for Vasta was being selected for the inaugural TSA Career Evolution Program, a 2-year rapid leadership development program that gave her the chance to work at TSA’s headquarters.
“It was a really neat opportunity for me to move through different positions and learn about things I wouldn't have experienced otherwise,” Vasta said.
She wanted to get involved with the U.S. international mission, possibly as a federal air marshal or special agent. But like her previous attempts at controlling destiny, Vasta found herself embarking down a different route.
“I was pursuing a law enforcement career when I got called to meet with a director with the former Office of Global Strategies,” Vasta said. “So, I transitioned to that office and had the opportunity to take on new roles, which just totally changed my career path. Before that opportunity, I didn’t know about TSA’s international mission, but it quickly became a passion for me. I had the opportunity to travel the world and help other countries with their aviation security.”
Vasta advises professionals to be smart about their careers and think about their future, but she recommends being open to opportunities.
“Don’t close yourself off to opportunities that might change your life,” she said. “Just because you have this idea of where you want your career to go, don’t ignore the other options available to you. Don’t close the door on something that might be a good experience for you.”
When an assistant federal security director position for Honolulu and Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, opened, Vasta embraced the open door and applied.
“I will never forget when I got selected for the position,” Vasta said. “The call was life-changing.”
Her new role was challenging, but Vasta’s dedication to the job never wavered, even as she embarked on a new chapter in her personal life.
“I had a pretty rough pregnancy. My daughter was born at 23 weeks and had a very low probability of surviving,” Vasta said. “During the birth, I almost died, and so did she. I didn’t know what was going to happen for those first couple months of my daughter’s life. My federal security director (FSD) at the time was incredibly supportive and checked on me at least every couple of days.”
While her daughter recovered in the neonatal intensive care unit, Vasta’s FSD coordinated a telework option with her.
“It was just such a blessing,” Vasta said. “No one said, ‘I need you to come back to work,’ but I needed to come back for myself. I really love my job, and I'm very passionate about it. I felt I was ready to come back. My FSD worked with my situation and gave me the opportunity to be at the hospital if my daughter needed me while also fulfilling my professional duties. I worked in my daughter’s hospital room, and she could hear my voice and know I was there.”
Vasta’s daughter is now a thriving 3-year-old.
“Being a mom has made me a better leader,” Vasta said. “I have found that I am more patient and understanding. I didn’t know I was capable of multitasking to the extent that I do now. It can be tough, but I'm doing my best to prioritize my family and my career. But also, I don't think I could do what I do, and do it well, if my husband wasn't so supportive. We’ve made career decisions together for the past 11 years of marriage, and I think it’s important to include your family in those decisions – they affect them too. You need that support and partnership.”
In September 2022, Vasta was named the FSD for the Pacific, overseeing operations across Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
“My favorite part of the job is supporting the workforce,” Vasta said about her new role. “I'm here for them. I wouldn't have a job without them. I still remember what it was like being on the front-lines. I really liked my position, but it wasn't easy. I remember being cursed at and having bins thrown at me.
“But I also remember what was important to me at that time, and those experiences have helped me tremendously as an FSD. Those past experiences are necessary, especially when I'm making decisions or meeting with the officers, and they bring up concerns. If I hadn't been a TSA officer, I wouldn't have the same level of understanding. It's my job to care about the workforce.”
Vasta still attempts to keep a healthy work-life balance and promotes the same mindset for her workforce, knowing the difference supportive leadership makes for employees.
“For me, personal wellness is physical, mental and spiritual,” Vasta said. “A wonderful female mentor taught me it’s important for us to take care of ourselves, so we can take care of our people. If we aren’t well, we aren’t as effective as leaders.”
By Kimberlyn Pepe, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs