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Saturday 21 May 2022 3:22pm

rachelmain2Rachel Pongi was joined by family and friends from home to celebrate her graduation.

Rachel Pongi credits her mother with getting her back into study and on to a path she finds challenging and exciting. She often asks her mum, “Please don't ever stop nagging me.”

Rachel dropped her studies half-way through her first year with another university, after feeling disengaged and directionless. She says this return to university study has been an important part of her life journey.

“Coming back was easier; I had grown up and realised no one was going to do it for me. This is my opportunity. I'm getting all this knowledge to help me in other areas of life and to do what I want to do. It should be fun and it should also be challenging.”

Rachel graduates on Saturday, 21 May with a Bachelor's Degree majoring in Public Health, and is now studying towards a Postgraduate Diploma.

“I like that the study of Public Health is always current. These studies offer me the perspective on why people at the top are making the decisions they are making. Because I want to work in the community at the ground level, I want to understand that journey of how decisions get made and trickle down.”

A big moment for Rachel during her degree was when a project on bike lanes being installed in her hometown Mangere, South Auckland came up in a lecture. When the lecturer asked if anyone had heard of the project, Rachel put her hand up and then shared her views with the class.

“That was the moment for me. I was so excited I rang my dad straight afterwards. It was weird for me that people who don't live in our community made those decisions. It was nice to be able to offer that perspective for all the other students in the class. Just because you have the power and good intentions, doesn't mean you should do it. You need to get the community's perspective.”

Rachel is working part-time as part of a COVID-19 border project and says this experience has also given her insights into the many sides of an issue. Her own family are an example, since COVID-19 began, her brother living overseas had gotten engaged and had two children she is yet to meet. She can understand both the need to protect public health by controlling the borders and the seriousness of working with people who just want to get home.

Joining her on Saturday to celebrate are her family and friends from home. There are also three special friends from her first foray into university coming to celebrate – stating that after taking a break from university:

“We have all enrolled again at different universities across New Zealand and we are all really enjoying it and doing well.”

Soon after Rachel first arrived in Dunedin, the first COVID-19 lockdown began. She says the hardest bit was coming out of lockdown and re-socialising. She thanks the friends she has made – it was hard transferring to a place where everyone already had established friend groups and she is really grateful those who welcomed her here.

The University's Pacific Islands Centre, particularly the Pacific Islands Research and Student Support Unit (PIRSSU), has also been key to her success.

“There's something about the people at PIRSSU that reminds me of my parents and family and that made me feel better. They check in and they lift you up. If I didn't go to class, it started getting too embarrassing to go back but the PI staff are always happy to see you and get you back into your learning, and you don't feel judged.”

Rachel plans to continue on with postgraduate studies; hoping to one day progress to Master's. Then, she wants to work in the community, at the grassroots level.

“I am someone who needs to really see I am making a difference.”

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