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Kimberly Tuitoga enjoyed her Psychology papers while completing her BSc in Neuroscience so much, that she took a Postgraduate Diploma in the subject a year after.

“I found the switch from the guided undergraduate environment to the more self-directed world of postgraduate study challenging at first. I feel privileged to be supervised by Dr Mele Taumoepeau. In those moments where I have doubted myself, she has helped me find the strength, hope and faith needed throughout my research.”

“What I have come to learn about ‘Psychology’ is that it is all around us and it touches on every aspect of our lives. The study of human mind and behaviour is fascinating – it’s absolutely amazing.”

Kimberly grew up witnessing the poor health conditions suffered by family members. The tremendous burdens of poor health have been immense - financially, physically, and psychologically - for all those involved.

“This, more than anything, has motivated my sincere empathy towards research into Pacific mental health” she explains.

In addition, her drive to pursue her thesis was also determined from what she had learned as a researcher during her summer studentship in 2014 (jointly with the Departments of Psychology and Biochemistry) on the Investigation of gene x environment interaction for Pacific teenagers’ mental health and wellbeing at the University of Otago.

“Through analysing the summer studentship data, provided by Pacific teenagers, I was introduced to the factors they felt influenced their wellbeing, some of which included family interactions, cultural identity, peer and school support, and bullying. Particularly, there were associations between wellbeing and mental health; and family and social environment.”

Kimberly realised she really enjoyed research and community involvement and after recalling a Tongan proverb: ‘the reef of today will be the island of tomorrow’ decided to continue her education. She applied for a Master in Psychology and proudly, received the 2015 University of Otago Pacific Islands Masters Scholarship.

“My Masters research is on Voices of Parents: Pacific parents’ views on the role of connectedness and teenagers’ wellbeing. The aim of this study is to identify culturally specific factors that Pacific parents consider for their teenagers’ wellbeing.

Ten Pacific Island parents (including two grandparents) were recruited in a one-on-one interview. I chose to use a qualitative approach because I wanted to find out the stories behind the numbers (quantitative approach). Open-ended questions with the use of semi structured interviews encouraged a storytelling approach, ensuring that the interview focus was maintained and to enable participants to take the story in a direction important to them. A follow up study was performed a week after to build on what was earlier said. The information gathered in these interviews will enable us to create a questionnaire that looks at variations in Pacific parenting style and parent-teenager connectedness.”

Kimberly has found her research - working with Pacific parents and their families - both an eye opener and a humbling experience.

“Being able to capture people’s different experiences and discover the meanings and understandings that people ascribe to certain practices and to their social environment has helped me to better understand myself and people around me.”

Kimberly hopes to further advance her research, so that one day the results from this research can be of assistance in the Pacific community.

“I hope the results of this study will implement a within-cultural framework intervention that uses Pacific ideas and perspectives for use with Pacific teenagers to improve their mental health and wellbeing. The pacific sense of self is not individualised ‘only in relationship to others’ which is different to Western society.”