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New Pacific Community Engagement Manager for Otago

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Nina Kirifi Alai image
Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai is leaving the Pacific Islands Centre after 18 years.

Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai didn’t know much about Dunedin before relocating her family from Auckland.

Now 18 years on, as she prepares to leave her role as Manager of the Pacific Islands Centre and head back to Auckland as the new Pacific Community Engagement Manager for Otago, she’s reminiscing about the “wonderful” journey she has had in Dunedin.

“Dunedin is such a wonderful, small community. You almost know everyone. It takes me back to village life where everyone looks out for everyone. That’s why I wanted students to come down here,” she says.

Originally from Samoa, Tofilau Nina moved to New Zealand to study a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies at the University of Auckland.

During her time at university she became a student politician, acting as Women’s Rights Officer at the Auckland University Students’ Association, as well as being a founding member of the Pacific Island Students’ Association. She was also President of the Auckland University Pacific Alumni Chapter.

After graduation Tofilau Nina had prepared herself to become a lawyer but decided to take up the temporary position as Manager of the Pacific Islands Centre at Otago for two years before she joined the legal profession.

However, her position at Otago changed her career path for good.

“The best thing you can do is prepare yourself for your calling. As Christians we believe in a higher calling – and you prepare yourself for the day when that calling comes.”

“I wouldn’t be doing my job well if I didn’t grow succession in terms of moving aside. Eighteen years is a long time. You need new blood. And I’ll still have that elder role to provide advice and counsel.”

Her calling turned out to be establishing Pacific presence at Otago, guiding and supporting Pacific students and their families through their journey, something Tofilau Nina has taken great pride in.

“With the Pacific Islands Centre you have to engage with the students’ communities to demystify tertiary education. That is the Pacific way. Pacific community and parents feel comfortable knowing that there is this place here at Otago for their fanau (children). I believe that we are the only university that does it well and we’re seeing the rise in student numbers every year.”

When she arrived in Dunedin with her husband and two children she started as the sole staff member for the Centre and gradually through the years, staff numbers have risen, as have the numbers of Pacific students matriculating through Otago.

In 2002 there were 425 Pacific students enrolled and as of November 2020 there are 1094.

“The beautiful thing is to see the increase in students coming in and the increase in students graduating. The Centre is a part of that journey – it's our journey, as the Pacific community, University of Otago and also Aotearoa as a whole.”

Since the beginning the support she received from University has been “wonderful”, she says.

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without my colleagues.”

Tofilau Nina has been a part of making Otago a “home away from home” for Pacific students, their parents and their communities for an entire generation of students.

Throughout her years she has never tired of the job, with something or someone new always around the corner.

Students came and went but each New Year students would arrive hungry to fulfil their dreams, she says.

Tofilau Nina believes education is the game-changer for the Pacific community and wider Aotearoa and wants to continue encouraging students down to Otago.

“If they can change themselves and their communities just imagine the change they can make in society.”

She believes her new role as Pacific Community Engagement Manager in Auckland will help continue the growth the University has seen in Pacific student numbers and more.

However, there’s one component of her current role she’s going to miss dearly.

“I will miss the students – my heart is weeping already.”

While it’s a big shift to make leaving the family she has built at the Centre, Tofilau Nina is confident the Centre will continue to flourish as her journey there ends.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job well if I didn’t grow succession in terms of moving aside. Eighteen years is a long time. You need new blood. And I’ll still have that elder role to provide advice and counsel.”

She may be leaving her University whānau but in heading back to Auckland she’ll be moving closer to her own.

Her daughter lives in Auckland, while her son lives in Samoa.

Tofilau Nina begins her role on 18 January - a fitting symmetry to 18 years in Dunedin.