The road to a degree is not always linear. Three members of Otago's Pasifika community talk to Pacific Communications Adviser Keilah Fox about what an alternative path to success can look like.
Determination and commitment means Rowena Fuao is on track to graduate with her Bachelor of Commerce from Otago in December.
She started her degree at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji, in 2010.
When she moved with her family to Aotearoa in 2012, she was initially planning to resume her studies straight away, but chose to support her family instead.
“I am the oldest of nine children. Dad was working and mum was in charge of the kids, so there was that responsibility to help out financially.”
After two years of casual employment, Rowena secured a full-time job at the Ministry of Social Development as a case manager from 2015 to 2017.
She then met her partner, who was studying at the University of Otago, and saw it as “a sign” to resume her studies.
Providing for her family remaining a priority, Rowena maintained her full-time Government job while studying part-time.
“I would only be on campus during my classes, and then I would walk back to work. It was a lot of walking back and forth, but you've got to do what you've got to do. I still had bills to pay and a family to help support.”
“It went well in the beginning but eventually it got to me.”
She took a gap year in 2020, which she says was a necessary part of her journey.
When she returned to Otago a year later, after initially deciding to work and study, she decided to resign from her job and focus on completing her degree.
“I realised that if I did it full-time, I could finish in a year. I wanted to finish what I started, and I enjoyed just focusing on one thing. If all goes well, I'll be all finished in November.”
Rowena will return to her case manager role once exams have concluded, and views her degree as a means through which she can “climb to the higher roles” within the Ministry of Social Development.
She says “there was no question” of whether she would return to complete her degree.
“When you start something, it's good to make sure you finish it. For me there was time and finances involved, and I didn't want to see that go to waste.”
To students who are deciding whether to return to University, Rowena says “it's an adjustment coming back to study, but it's worth it”.
Will Siale's path to a Pacific and Global Health degree was anything but conventional.
After completing First Year Health Science (FYHS) in 2017, he was offered a spot in the coveted Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) programme.
“When I got the offer, I was still quite young and unsure of what I wanted,” Will says.
“There were a lot of people advising me to do Dentistry because it was so hard to get into, and there's a lot of money in it.
“Back then, a lot of what my peers thought mattered to me and there was that pressure from back home in Samoa.”
The stress of a new course was exacerbated by the challenge of flatting for the first time, particularly because he resided on the infamously lively Castle Street.
Making matters worse, a serious rugby injury saw him wearing a cast for six weeks.
His family lives in Samoa and this was the first time he'd gone into surgery without any direct support there afterwards.
"I think as you get older and you start deciding what you really want,you start caring less about what your peers think. You just know yourself a lot more."
“Whilst in recovery I was constantly tired, and they had me on strong pain medication. I was returning to a course that demands so much and I could feel myself falling behind.”
Will says this was when he started experiencing difficulties with his mental health.
“The pressure of catching up while being debilitated gave me a lot of anxiety.
“It was overwhelming because I felt like I was losing control of the things I was trying to achieve. Passing my upcoming exams seemed near impossible because I was so behind.
“I didn't know how to ask for help. Being young and naïve I thought 'I got myself into this, I can get myself out of it all on my own'.”
After getting his results and after briefly considering retaking the year, he made the difficult decision to drop out of Dentistry and instead take up a Bachelor of Commerce.
“People around campus would ask me why I left Dentistry and I would just get flustered.
“No one was asking with the intentions of bringing me down, but after a while the doubts would creep in, I began to think 'am I an idiot for leaving?'.”
While feeling “relieved to be passing papers again”, Will's interest remained in health and the transition to online learning due to COVID-19 was enough for him to decide to take a break from study altogether.
He travelled home to Samoa to see his family and then returned to Dunedin to work before deciding to switch to a Bachelor of Health Sciences (BHealSc), majoring in Pacific and Global Health.
“It was a great fit for me. It focused on Pacific, which is a huge part of who I am, and it related to public health, which I grew a passion for in Dentistry.”
With only one year remaining of his BHealSc, Will hopes his story will encourage students to “think hard about where their interests lie”.
“I think as you get older and you start deciding what you really want, you start caring less about what your peers think. You just know yourself a lot more.”
When Otago Commerce Alumna Lovely Luafitu began her studies at Otago in 2018 she did not know she was also going to become a mother to two children.
Navigating motherhood while completing a degree proved challenging, so when the opportunity to move to Auckland arose, Lovely decided to take a break from study to focus on her kids.
“I was new to being a mother and all the responsibility that came with it. I also thought Auckland would be a good place to raise kids.”
Lovely enjoyed her time in Auckland and even completed a Business Certificate while there, but after growing up in the South Island, says “it wasn't the place” for her.
She decided to move back to Dunedin so she could complete her studies at Otago, where she knew more people and felt more at home.
“It was a major decision to carry on my studies with kids, especially with the culture around motherhood.
“Once you become a mother, often the expectation is that you stay home.
“I decided to go with my gut and continue studying, while raising kids.”
Feeling the pressure of returning to study after a four-year hiatus, Lovely considered leaving in 2021 but the encouragement of then-Tutorials and Academic Support Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Centre, Dr Marea Colombo, inspired Lovely to push through.
“If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have graduated in August.”
Associate Professor Sara Walton and Dr Maja Graso of the Otago Business School also made a meaningful impact on Lovely while studying.
“Sara has an interest in collaborating with Māori and Pacific communities in her sustainability and environmental work. This drew me into her classes and now I'm looking into completing a Masters in that field.”
“I was also inspired by Dr Graso and her journey to getting her PhD. She's now both a mother and a lecturer.”
“Sometimes, if the kids were sick, I'd have to ask Dr Graso for an extension. It felt good because she understood some of those pressures.”
She says that while she knows the responsibilities that “come with being Pacific”, including “supporting family financially and meeting church obligations”, it's worth it.
“You will face difficulties no matter what path you take, so it's about deciding what difficulties you want to endure.”
For Lovely, getting her degree was about giving her children “someone to look up to” and to show them that they can achieve anything with hard work.
“That's my role as a mother.”
Lovely graduated from Otago in August, 2022.
- Kōrero by Keilah Fox