Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai
In the 2023 New Year Honours, Otago's Pacific Community Engagement Manager, Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai, was awarded an Honorary Queen's Service Medal (QSM) for services to education and the Pacific community.
Tofilau was the Manager of the Pacific Islands Centre at the University of Otago for more than 20 years, focusing on engagement and success of Pacific students, and exploring the spaces where there are gaps in services to support the students and staff. She moved to her new role in Auckland in 2020.
Tofilau says when she was first contacted about the honour, she “froze then closed the laptop”.
“I mean you don't get such emails every day. I read it again carefully, so that it's not spam, and I shed a few tears. I am still in that shock moment.
“You don't do your daily job chasing such honours. The biggest honour is to see students come in do well, graduate and go back to help our families, communities and Aotearoa. However, I am honoured and grateful and I thank the Lord for calling me to this role and for putting me in contact with people who care about creating successful societies.”
Originally from Samoa, Tofilau moved to New Zealand to study a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Arts in Women's Studies at the University of Auckland.
During her time at university she became a student politician, acting as Women's Rights Officer at the Auckland University Students' Association, as well as being a founding member of the Pacific Island Students' Association. She was also President of the Auckland University Pacific Alumni Chapter.
After graduation, Tofilau decided to take up the temporary position as Manager of the Pacific Islands Centre at Otago for two years before she joined the legal profession. However, her calling turned out to be establishing Pacific presence at Otago and guiding and supporting Pacific students and their families through their journey.
Tofilau has led developments at Otago to support Pacific tertiary institutions in the region and assisted with setting up scholarships for staff from universities in Samoa and Fiji, to undertake professional development at the University. She was also Chair of the Association of Pasifika Staff in Tertiary Education from 2020 to 2022 and has been re-elected as Chair for a further two years. In 2021, Tofilau graduated with a Master of Indigenous Studies from Otago.
She says the QSM is a huge honour for the Pacific community. “They are the ones who give me energy every day to carry on with this calling. It's equally also for the Uni of Otago – leaders and colleagues who aspire for the best for Pacific students and their communities. And to all of them and my late husband, I dedicate this award.”