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Grit and determination helped get graduand Ilisapeti (Betty) Feiloakitohi through her anatomy degree.

Ilisapeti (Betty) Feiloaki Feiloakitohi’s path from South Auckland’s Mangere East to this weekend’s graduation ceremony at the Town Hall hasn’t been a smooth one. But as the first from her family to attend university she’s confident it will soon be a well-trod one.

“It’s fitting that Otago’s new logo symbolises a place of many firsts - I’m one of five siblings and I’m the first, but won’t be the last, to pave the way for our family’s younger generations through tertiary education,” Betty says.

She graduates on Saturday with a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Anatomy, after overcoming a series of obstacles and trials along the way.

Betty’s journey at Otago began in 2014, when she took Health Science First Year.

“I didn't do well in my first year, I thought it was due to being away from the nest for the first time in my life. Not passing any papers in first year was hard.”

She was determined to keep trying and came back the following year to tackle those papers again but still couldn’t get the results she needed.

“I felt like I was not clever enough for uni and that my obstacles were overpowering my grit to continue,” she says.

“But a wise graduate told me that I would appreciate uni a little more by going away and coming back. I didn't understand her advice until I returned home to work for three years. I went home and faced the sound of disappointment, but it made me stronger.”

Betty worked as a dispatch administrator during those years, and found ways to make her work more efficient, until it no longer felt challenging enough. She decided then that one day she would find a way to do those Health Science papers again. During this time, she took the opportunity to earn a Business and Administration Diploma from Otago Polytechnic.

She then reapplied to Otago and started her Anatomy degree in 2019.

“An anatomy degree was all I knew at the time. I thought it could lead only to medicine, but in my last two years of my degree, I discovered it led to so many interesting pathways regarding medicine and the ability to help others through research and other avenues,” she says.

There were more challenges ahead for her though, including having to undergo surgery and, as the eldest daughter, having to return home for the COVID lockdown.

Family is incredibly important to her and she is proud of her Pacific background, hailing from a beautiful small island in Tonga, in the Ha'apai group called Moʻungaʻone, and from her mother’s side, Cook Island heritage in Aitutaki and the Island of Pearls, Manihiki.

“In my family, though education was important, it wasn’t more important than surviving. I grew up where we were more prone to work than to study.”

One final and poignant challenge came at the last hurdle.

“I lost my uncle to a sickness in the moments of my final exams. He meant a lot. He was one of my biggest supporters here in Dunedin. He and his family took care of me and met me when I first came to Dunedin.

“Fortunately, I was able to attend a special exam in February this year. So, in memory of my beautiful Uncle Monty, I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll finish it’, and I did. For us all.”

She credits her success to her grit and determination and to many others who helped her along the way, with Anatomy Teaching Fellow Rebecca Bird playing a special role.

“Rebecca showed me ways to overcome my feelings and emotions and create a plan of attack for my studies. I'll forever be grateful for the extra push and faith in my journey. She was my anatomy aunty!

“I also worked alongside the Pacific Student Support team in the Science Division, the Pacific Island Centre and the anatomy department. And through the Pacific student associations, I was able to access exam workshops and attend student events.”

Betty says she is especially thankful to all those who “believed it was possible, with all glory given to God! I thank the support staff at Otago, my parents, siblings and all those cheering me on for a better future.

“Now that I have achieved my degree, I feel like I could conquer many more years of study and the feelings of not being good enough really have disappeared because I've been through so much and even crawled to the finish line, but I'm here and that's all that matters.

“Graduating makes up for all the obstacles and challenges I have faced, because soon I’ll be walking with tears and emotions to the Town Hall, witnessed by my parents and grandparents.”

Kōrero by Sally Knox, Communications Adviser, Division of Sciences.

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