Milestone for Pacific Voices

Prof Richard Blaikie makes the keynote address at the University of Otago’s Pacific Voices...
Prof Richard Blaikie makes the keynote address at the University of Otago’s Pacific Voices postgraduate symposium yesterday. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
When Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai first set up a Pacific symposium 20 years ago, being a Pasifika student on campus could be a lonely place.

The University of Otago has celebrated its 20th anniversary of Pacific Voices XX, an event held for postgraduate Pasifika students or students with Pacific focused studies from all divisions to share their research findings to friends, families and academics.

The symposium was created by the university’s Head of Pacific Engagement Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai, who has her master’s in indigenous studies.

Ms Kirifi-Alai was appointed manager of the Pacific Island centre at the university 20 years ago and held the role for 18 years.

She initially struggled with her role and, as an undergraduate, felt she did not have the ability to academically support Pasifika students and realised connecting the students was her main purpose.

"Most of these students were from the islands and you can imagine, at that time, there was no support on campus — they were lost, they felt isolated."

"What I offered was a space for them to come and be heard, just be among similar-minded people.

Although she did not have Pasifika staff to lean on and the first Pacific Island centre’s location was "not the most accessible of places", she did not feel discouraged and continued to hold meetings with Pasifika students in libraries or various rooms around campus, managing to organise the first Pacific Voices event for the students back in 2002.

"I was very fortunate the leadership at Otago were supportive."

Elders from Pasifika communities were invited to the event, helping them to understand the research role of the university.

"The students were forced to present it in a way their people would understand, their communities would understand, so it served many good purposes."

The event became a pathway for students, connecting them with academics in their field.

"Every time I think about it I'm emotional.

"Looking at where they are now, in very powerful positions in our communities around the world, I follow their careers and I'll never forget how they were part of this legacy."

She hoped Pasifika students could continue to thrive at the university with the foundations she created, but was worried some of the progress could be reversed with the new National-led government’s review into special entrance for Māori and Pasifika into medicine.

Pasifika alumni Tuifuisa‘a Dr Patila Amosa was among those who thrived from those very foundations, presenting her research findings at Pacific Voices about 15 years ago.

Today, Dr Patila Amosa is the Vice-chancellor of the National University of Samoa, the first woman to ever hold the position.

She felt grateful for the opportunities the Pacific Voices event gave her and was glad that it continued to take place.

"I think the biggest thing for me is it gave me that confidence I needed, because I wasn't very confident back then."

Her research at Otago focused on water quality and climate change, particularly looking at ocean acidification.

Like most Pasifika post-graduate students, her studies were focused on subjects which were little researched and were beneficial to Pacific communities. 

Dr Patila Amosa and her brother were the first of their immediate family to study at university and her success showed how valuable support for Pacific students was.