Dr Xaviour Walker with Faumuina Professor Faafetai (Tai) Sopoaga (left) and Associate Professor Rose Richards.
Dr Xaviour Walker is a perfect example of the change he wants to see.
An Otago Medical School graduate, he recently returned from a lengthy period working overseas to take up a Pacific leadership role at the University.
While numbers of Pacific Health Sciences students have been steadily increasing, the same growth has not been seen among staff and leaders, Dr Walker, the new Associate Dean Pacific Division of Health Sciences, says.
“If we look at Health Sciences, and across the University, there are very few Pacific staff, especially in leadership positions. So one of my big focuses is for us to recruit people back after they graduate.
“For example, we have very few Pacific joint clinical University and hospital staff. We're producing a lot more Pacific graduates, but now it's time to get some of them back so we can increase our capacity with teaching, research and working with the Pacific students.”
“I had roots here and I always wanted to come back, but it allowed me a pathway to come back so I think that's important. We have to make it easy for people to return.”
In 2006 Dr Walker was the only Pacific student to graduate as a doctor from Otago Medical School. It was the start of a stellar career which took him to Australia and the United States where he spent 12 years furthering his training at universities including Harvard, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and University of California, Irvine.
He made regular trips back to Dunedin to give lectures and connect with students, having worked with other Pacific Health Sciences graduates to establish a mentoring network for those following in their footsteps. He had also maintained strong Pacific islands connections, having undertaken student electives in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
In early 2020 he and his family moved back to Dunedin after his appointment as Associate Dean Pacific Dunedin School of Medicine, a joint clinical role encompassing teaching and duties as a geriatrician at Dunedin Hospital.
Previous Division of Health Sciences' Associate Dean (Pacific) Faumuina Professor Faafetai Sopoaga was instrumental in the move and has been a long time mentor and colleague for Dr Walker. Professor Sopoaga is the first female Pacific professor for Health Sciences at the University of Otago and is currently the Director, Va'a o Tautai – Centre for Pacific Health and Convener, Pacific Health.
“I had roots here and I always wanted to come back, but it allowed me a pathway to come back so I think that's important. We have to make it easy for people to return.
“We've got talented alumni, so when leadership positions come up, we should be trying to match the two or just advertise through our networks to let people know what's available.”
In his conversations with other Pacific alumni, he stresses the need to plan ahead and consider what additional skills they may need to advance their career. This could include, for example, leadership or business qualifications.
As Associate Dean Pacific, Division of Health Sciences he has four key focuses:
“We have a lot of excellent Pacific researchers, but what would signal to New Zealand and the world about the importance of Pacific Health research would be to establish an endowed chair of Pacific Health Science Research. This would act as a catalyst to both support what we are currently doing in Pacific health research, attract the top researchers and create a pathway for future Pacific researchers.”
“We have to ensure that we're delivering a Pacific curriculum across the divisions and making sure that's well supported. Pacific cultural competency is really important, so that staff teaching our students have the cultural competency, and we are able to help with that. This is not only important for dealing with students but also the staff who are working in the clinical space to be able to deal with Pacific patients.”
“There's been a lot of investment in supporting our students over the last 20 years. Continuing to Improve our metric and data collection will let us we know if we are making a difference. This would allow us to focus on areas of student needs, for example papers where they require extra support to ensure our students succeed. This also comes back to Pacific staffing, we need to ensure we have adequate Pacific staff capacity to support the increased Pacific student numbers.”
“Our relationships with the Pacific community – regional, nationally and in the Pacific region are all extremely important. We are grateful to have a Pacific Advisory Community Group who help advise us at the University of Otago and we will continue to work closely them. We have Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai who has been appointed as the Pacific Community Engagement manager in Auckland working with our Pacific providers. Before COVID we had medical students doing electives in the Pacific and we have close historic relationships with the Pacific Islands with health. We have ongoing research and it's trying to make sure that it's done in a way that is respectful so the community feels very much involved in what we're doing and gets research dissemination and engagement, so they feel a part of the university.”
Dr Walker says the University of Otago has done a lot to increase Pacific health professional students, and that now is an important time to build on that foundation by increasing staff, research and teaching capacity. An upcoming strategic planning meeting would aim to map out a sustainable vision for the coming decades linking with Director of Pacific Development Dr Tasileta Teevale and her office which oversees Otago's Strategic Pacific Framework.
In the meantime, Pacific student numbers in Health Sciences are at historically high levels. A record cohort of 37 Pacific students graduated in 2020, spanning Medicine, Dentistry, Physiotherapy, Oral Health, Dental Technology, Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences. And for the 2021 academic year, the University has welcomed more than 130 Pacific students to Health Sciences First Year.
“It's truly inspiring to see,” Dr Walker says, who hopes to see many of them return as future leaders.