University welcomes psychology professor

Pacific professor of psychology Siautu Alefaio reacts to a cultural welcome from members of the...
Pacific professor of psychology Siautu Alefaio reacts to a cultural welcome from members of the University of Otago psychology department yesterday. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Otago's first Pacific professor of psychology says the position is a huge honour, but the role has been "a long time coming".

Prof Siautu Alefaio’s tenure at the University of Otago began with a cultural welcome yesterday.

She said she felt both excited and nervous.

"I think being the first in anything — it’s always going to be a bit challenging."

Her plane experienced major turbulence, landing in Dunedin with a "thud", she said.

"I think for me, that’s symbolic of new beginnings — it all seems like lovely roses, but the reality is that there’s going to be some turbulence.

"And that’s OK because that’s what life throws at us."

Prof Alefaio was born in Dunedin but moved up north with her family while she was young.

She mentioned her brother, Fa’amoe Timo, who died in 2022, and said he had "brought [her] back down here".

"He set this new trajectory of my life," she said.

Before accepting the role at Otago she was an associate professor at Massey.

She referenced a well-known Samoan song Samoa e maopo’opo mai and said it related to her journey.

She said the song was about a bird that often flew, but always returned home.

"This is my home here at Otago."

Psychology department head Prof Jamin Halberstadt said he was thrilled Prof Alefaio was joining the department.

"Otago Psychology has a long and proud history of internationally renowned research, as well as excellence in teaching and clinical training, but our aspirations in the Pacific space have sometimes exceeded our grasp," he said.

Pasifika psychology student Susana Jones said she could not wait for Prof Alefaio to become a "warm and familiar face".

She was excited Pacific students at the university would have someone who "looks like them, who thinks like them, and who speaks like them" in a position of influence.

Ms Jones said Prof Alefaio would stand as a "genuine representation" of themselves, their families, and their values.

"We are extremely humbled to have [Prof Alefaio] choose us."

She was "an absolute gift to us — one that I will treasure, that students will treasure, and now I’m sure this department and its people will treasure".

Prof Alefaio, of Samoan descent, was given two welcomes for her new role, one at the university and another from her family in Ōtara.

She is considered to have contributed immensely to Pacific psychology, writing Pacific-Indigenous Psychology in 2022, which became the foundation of her research as a Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Health Research Council grant recipient and Fulbright New Zealand Scholar.

Although she begins in her role this month, Prof Alefaio plans to attend the Fulbright cultural exchange in the United States from April to October this year.