Home island front of graduate’s mind

University of Otago graduand Jekope Maiono celebrates the completion of his PhD at the Pacific...
University of Otago graduand Jekope Maiono celebrates the completion of his PhD at the Pacific Graduation Breakfast on Saturday. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
After fulfilling a promise to become the first person in his remote Fijian village to attend university, Jekope Maiono is committed to using his knowledge to help save his community.

Dr Maiono graduated with a PhD in Fijian sustainable land development from the University of Otago on Saturday.

"[My grandfather] reminded me, ‘when you go, remember that you go to finish your studies and come back and help the people in the village’, and I made sure I said ‘OK, I will finish my studies and get a degree and be the first in the village to do that’," Dr Maiono said.

He moved to New Zealand in 2006 from his home island Cikobia, in Fiji, completing a bachelor of commerce degree in management at the university in 2013.

After receiving his first degree, Dr Maiono went on to complete his master’s degree in sustainable business and a postgraduate certificate in health sciences — spending a total of 13 years studying at the university.

"I really had a feeling of gratitude that I was in a position with all the resources and the people that came into my life that opened the door, who accepted me and said to me ‘you can actually do this’.

"In the context of where I come from, it isn’t really just a one-person thing, it’s the whole name of an island who contribute to something like this."

Dr Maiono’s home island has a population of about 200 people.

"I can see both worlds," he said.

"I can see how modernisation has really taken over and the drive of the industry is extracting, extracting and expanding.

"But on the island, you can actually go up on the highest point and you can see the whole island — straight away you know there’s a boundary around you."

For Dr Maiono’s PhD, he decided to focus his studies on his village and how they embraced climate change and the ways in which they "resiliently survive".

It was Dr Maiono’s life goal to give back to his community.

"When we have hardships in New Zealand, it’s like, ‘I don’t have enough of this, I can’t afford to buy this’, and still live in a nice warm house, you still have food on the table.

"But for them, it’s totally different. They just want to survive, and that’s a really a good lesson that we can learn from."

During his studies, Dr Maiono returned home several times to continue helping his community.

He also spent the past five months as the university’s Pacific student support facilitator.

"The next step is to continue the work that I’ve been doing in Fiji to make sure people have the basic needs — food, water and shelter — so that we don’t deprive them of their human rights. I think that’s the main thing.

"Once they have nice food and a nice comfortable place to live, then they can worry about the next part, education, economic prosperity, all those kind of things.

"For them, we need to build from the ground up."

He said part of his plan was to educate his community about the importance of creating a sustainable system for their continued survival.

"Here in New Zealand, if anything happens, the government hands out financial assistance.

"For them, their life support is the land. If they lose the land, if this generation somehow sold the land, you’re cutting off their life support, you’re cutting off everything the next generation would rely on."

Dr Maiono stressed the importance of having a purpose to help one achieve goals that otherwise felt out of reach.

"For me, it was the moment I realised my calling, I realised my purpose.

"Because if you’re not doing it for a good reason, then when things get tough, you’re just going to give up.

"The important thing is to find that calling, it doesn’t matter if people tell you, ‘oh, it’s out of your reach, you can’t do this, you can’t do that’, you will find a way, because it has meaning to you."