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Celebrating Pacific graduates amid cancellations

Tuesday 21 September 2021 5:02pm

While the latest COVID‑19 variant causes a number of new restrictions across the country, the University of Otago was forced to cancel its August graduation ceremony. We speak to three Pacific graduates, who did so in absentia, about their academic journeys and what their futures hold.

Mrs Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai

Master of Indigenous Studies

Mrs Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai image
Mrs Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai.

After attending countless Pacific graduation ceremonies in an official capacity, it was finally time for Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai to cross the stage herself three weeks ago, but COVID‑19 had other plans.

Nevertheless, the cancellation of the ceremony has not taken the joy out of her achievement; Tofilau graduated in absentia with a Master of Indigenous Studies.

Tofilau is a recognisable public figure at the University of Otago, emblematic of all that the Pacific Islands Centre has to offer its students.

Prior to her current appointment as the Auckland-based Pacific Community Engagement Manager at the University of Otago, Tofilau spent 18 years in Dunedin as Manager of the Pacific Islands Centre, and her thesis focused on the development of the Centre during her tenure.

“It’s a part of the history of the University of Otago. We were the only University with a Pacific student support centre when it was established in 2001.

“What we have there is quite unique. We try and provide support in a way that will make our students respond,” she says.

Balancing a full-time managerial job, her studies, and her personal life was challenging at times, she admits.

“It’s been a huge learning process, I gave up many, many times.

“I was in the thick of things. So involved in work, so involved with the community, and I had a family.

“I have had numerous supervisors, and I am sure I have exhausted their patience because at the end of the day, when I’m supporting students, they become number one.”

It was often those students who inspired her to keep working on her thesis, she says.

“Over the years I hosted many postgraduate ‘Pacific Voices’ symposiums. Each year, after hearing about everyone’s projects, I felt encouraged to continue my own.”

Tofilau attributes much of her success in her Masters to her supervisor, Dr Telesia Kalavite, describing her as the “example of how Pacific students should be supervised”.

“With other supervisors, if I miss a meeting or don’t respond to an email, they drop it, but not Telesia.

“She will turn up at my door, and say ‘okay, let’s go have coffee’ and ask me ‘where is the blockage?’.”

Looking forward, Tofilau plans to publish her research upon the recommendation of her markers.

Tofilau offers some final reflections on her time in Dunedin.

“I hope I’ve done justice to it. What a journey. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I loved it.”

Dr Charmaine Kwan

Doctor of Philosophy

Dr Charmaine Kwan image
Dr Charmaine Kwan.

Charmaine started her Doctor of Philosophy in 2017, focusing her thesis on higher education in Fiji.

“I wanted to look at the issues, challenges and complexities faced by Fiji’s higher education sector post 2006 coup.”

Charmaine has worked in the education sector in Fiji for over a decade, and it was this work that inspired her thesis topic.

“As I became involved with different types of education work in Fiji and the Pacific, I started to notice that concepts, policies and mappings for education, particularly higher education were vaguely understood.

“I wanted to understand how higher education worked in Fiji.”

Charmaine describes her PhD journey as “one of the toughest things” she has ever done.

“I have been humbled with the amount of knowledge that this journey has instilled in me.

“My stress, however, was often offset by the beauty of the South Island.”

Charmaine credits her two supervisors, Associate Professor Vivienne Anderson from the College of Education, and Dr Rob Wass from the Higher Education Development Centre, for keeping her on track throughout her qualification.

“My supervisors were my go-to people.

“We would go to a coffee shop and have chats about the journey, and that is the kind of consistency that a student really needs to see a PhD through.”

When her graduation ceremony was abruptly cancelled due to COVID‑19, Charmaine was able to adopt an optimistic view.

She says she always celebrates milestones on a grand scale, but it all changed last year.

“I couldn’t even go to Japan to attend my fiancé’s graduation, and my wedding got cancelled.

“I think something that COVID has taught me is that situations can change drastically, and you just have to learn to see the pockets of sunshine that it offers.”

Dr Charmaine Kwan’s thesis illustrations image
Dr Charmaine Kwan’s thesis illustrations.

Charmaine has also been acknowledged for her work as a Reader/Writer for the Disabilities Information and Support arm at the University, receiving an Appreciation Award for her contributions in 2020.

A personal highlight for Charmaine involved collaborating with her father to produce illustrations for each chapter of her thesis in order to make her research more accessible to the public.

“That was a very good opportunity for me to really break down concepts to someone that had no idea about my research field.”

Charmaine has since moved home to Fiji and has taken up a career with the World Bank.

Ms Debora Maea

Bachelor of Pharmacy

Ms Debora Maea and her family image
Ms Debora Maea and her family.

Debora Maea has graduated with her second consecutive Bachelors degree from the University of Otago.

As of 2021, Debora has a Bachelor of Science and now also a Bachelor of Pharmacy under her belt.

Debora’s interest in pharmacy stemmed from what she believed was an inadequate health system, and was a change in direction from her earlier ambitions.

“Originally I wanted to be a flight attendant.”

“I grew up in Invercargill and it’s mostly European New Zealanders down there and not that many Islanders.

“While we were living there, my brother became sick and our family felt like he was not receiving the optimal health care that he required.”

This ignited her interest in the health sciences that would see her through both degrees.

Debora enrolled at the University of Otago after receiving the prestigious Fofoa scholarship awarded to first-year students from the Moana.

Debora appreciates the prominent figures and student support services that helped her along her journey, including fellow graduate Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai in her time as the Pacific Islands Centre manager, and Fran Cockerell in her role as Manager of PIRSSU.

“I knew I could go to Nina or Fran for academic and pastoral support during my two degrees.”

Outside of her studies, Debora was the president of OUCISA (Otago University Cook Islands Student Association).

“Helping to build the profile of our Cook Islands Students Association was an incredible experience.

“Liaising with the University, with Nina and with media enabled my growth as a leader.”

During her Science degree, Debora was faced with the devastating news that her father had passed suddenly.

“My science degree was about anatomy and when you learn about certain health conditions and the available treatments, you just think ‘why didn’t the doctor do this for my dad?’. It was challenging.”

It was her father’s ethos that motivated her throughout the rest of her studies.

“My dad wouldn’t have wanted me to give up. He would say ‘quitters never get anything’, so I just kept going.”

Debora attributes her academic success to the meaningful friendships she made over the duration of her Pharmacy course.

“I made a pact with two of my friends in my course who are also Islanders. We made a pact that we were not going to repeat. We were going to graduate together.”

As Debora reflects upon her journey in its entirety, she offers some personal acknowledgements.

“I would love to thank God, my church, my siblings, my grandparents, and most importantly, my parents Sharon and Terepai.

“I could not have done it without them.”

Debora is now in Auckland completing an internship that aligns with her field of study.