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Pacific staff and students from the University were joined by Māori and Pacific community leaders and representatives from tangata whenua to welcome Professor Vaai to Dunedin.

A Pacific kava ceremony was held in the Council Chambers in the Clocktower recently to welcome Reverend Professor Upolu Luma Vaai, Principal and Professor of Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College (PTC) in Suva, Fiji.

Professor Vaai says ceremony was “very emotional” for him.

“We are not just engaging with a welcome ceremony, we are engaging also with a living presence of our ancestors in a space and engaging with the sacredness of a space.

“The leadership of the University were there, which speaks volumes of how much the University values culture.

“Through this ceremony, I realise I am not only welcome, but family,” Professor Vaai says.

People sitting at a table

Professor Upolu Luma Vaai, centre, attended the Pacific Islands Centre's scholarships event on Wednesday, and gave some advice to students before closing in lotu.

Professor Vaai was invited to Otago by the Pacific Thought Network (PacTNet) and during his visit, delivered a masterclass, seminar, and the annual Pacific lecture about Pacific philosophies of relationality, Pacific knowledge and what the PTC calls the ‘whole of life’ vision.

PacTNet Co-Director Dr Emma Powell says they are very grateful to Professor Vaai for his generosity and teaching.

“Visiting scholars like Professor Vaai inspire us all at Otago to lift our scholarship and refocus our attention on the issues that are impacting the oceanic region that we call home,” Dr Powell says.

Under Professor Vaai’s leadership, the PTC is launching a new university in 2025, which will be the home of ‘whole of life’ education in the region.

“The whole of life vision views life as relational, practical, multidimensional, and inclusive. We are moving away from an exclusive to a more inclusive approach to education that includes Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science and considers not just the life of the human being but the life of the earth and whenua as well,” Professor Vaai says.

The University of Otago and the Pacific Theological College signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2022 when a delegation from Otago traveled across the Pacific to establish partnerships with educational institutions in the region.

Professor Vaai says Otago and the PTC want to take the MOU down a practical path with tangible outcomes, rather than just being a piece of paper.

“I believe in a kind of education system that is connected and multidimensional and is all about sharing our skills and ideas.

“We can no longer do education in silos, we need each other. Whether it’s co-delivering, co-designing, sharing of resources and students. That’s a whole of life approach.”

A man crouched on the ground

A Samoan Ava ceremony involving the University of Otago's Eric Nabalagi (pictured) was held in the Council Chambers for the second time in the University's history.

This is the first time Professor Vaai has come to both the University of Otago and Dunedin, and he is impressed by the beautiful architecture and strategic direction of the University.

“I was impressed in particular around Indigenous studies. It’s one of the leading universities in the region, I would say.”

During his visit, Professor Vaai gave a speech at the event held for first year Pacific students who received scholarships to attend Otago.

“As leading the creation of a new regional university in Fiji, I go around the world, including New Zealand, to learn of how universities survive and sustain themselves.

“Tonight is one of those experiences that I’ll take back with me. The importance of scholarships and the importance of taking care of our Pacific Islands students, and for the leaders of a university to always be there. I’ve learned a lot."

Before closing in lotu (prayer) at the event, he imparted wisdom onto attending Pacific students.

“If you forget about God, just remember your parents and your family. That’s the advice that I was given by my grandfather to me.”

Kōrero by Keilah Fox

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