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Pacific Islands Centre graduation

Celebration for Pacific graduates in August 2011. Nini Kirifi-Alai is in the centre (with purple lei). Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

Pacific Island students have been coming to the University of Otago since the 1920s (see this earlier post about some of the pioneers). For many decades they were a small but noticeable group on campus. In 1965, for instance, Otago’s 164 international students included 21 from Fiji, 1 from the Cook Islands and 5 from Samoa. With the growth of Pacific migration from the 1960s onwards, a new generation of Pacific Island students who had grown up in New Zealand began to join those coming direct from the islands for their education, with 2% of Otago students identifying their ethnicity as Pacific Islander in 1995.

Phil Meade, Otago’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), was keen to improve further Pacific tertiary access and achievement. He set David Richardson, the Director of Student Services, the task of investigating how Otago might best go about this. After looking at various possibilities they decided to establish a dedicated central service support centre run and led by Pacific people and serving students in all academic departments. This was a model that had already proved itself at Otago with the Maori Centre, established in 1989. Such a centre fitted with the mood of the times, for New Zealand Pacific communities, who lagged behind other New Zealanders in many social measures, were keen to improve their future through education. Around the same time, in response to lobbying from various advocates, the government, through the Tertiary Education Commission, began providing tertiary institutions with equity funding to improve access and achievement for Pacific students (and also Maori students and students with disabilities).

The Pacific Islands Centre got underway in 2001. Under Richardson’s direction, project officer Pesamino Tili set up a room and office in an old house at 262 Leith Street, shared with disability support. He provided pastoral care and extra tutorials for Pacific students. In 2002 Nina Kirifi-Alai was appointed as the centre’s manager on an 18-month fixed contract and shifted to Dunedin from Auckland with her family. She planned to move to Samoa when the term was up, but loved the job and remains in it 13 years later! Kirifi-Alai proved an ideal person for the role. She had recently graduated as a mature student in law and played an active part in student politics in Auckland, working towards improved support for Pacific students there. She had considerable standing in the Pacific community and in 2007 her family in her home village of Iva Savaii, Samoa, gave her the high chief title Tofilau.


Nina Kirifi-Alai speaking at a graduation ceremony in 2008. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

From its beginning the Pacific Islands Centre provided a cultural home for students, with study space, mentoring and extra tutorials in a relaxed and welcoming environment. A support group for postgraduate students, set up in 2002, proved popular. In addition to its monthly meetings, it held an annual Pacific Voices Symposium, a prestigious event where postgrad Pacific students presented their work. Sports events and social gatherings added to the mix of support on offer. The centre moved into larger premises in an old house in Leithbank, across the road from the commerce building, in 2006, naming its rooms after early Otago graduates who became high-achieving Pacific leaders, Fijian Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara and Cook Islander Sir Tom Davis. One of the courtyards was named after an Otago law graduate and first New Zealand Pacific Judge A’e’au Semi Epati. Dunedin’s Pacific communities were involved in the centre from the beginning; they had been an important source of support for Pacific students from out of town for generations.

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A Pacific Islands Centre tutorial in 2013. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.

As Nina Kirifi-Alai notes, Otago’s early Pacific Island students were the cream of the crop – the most able students from their countries, well-prepared and well-funded. While this remains the case for students coming from the islands, later students raised in New Zealand were often not well prepared for university and some struggled to cope. Their families had little experience of tertiary education and students hadn’t always taken the right subjects at school to fit with their career aspirations. Many couldn’t afford residential college accommodation, with the extra support it provided. The university didn’t just need to recruit more Pacific students; it needed to ensure they were properly prepared and that there was an effective programme to help them transition to tertiary study. Liaising with Pacific communities and informing them about university was one important role taken on by the Pacific Islands Centre. In 2006 it began bringing groups of secondary students to a 3-day on-campus experience, to help demystify student life for them. A Pacific Island Community Liaison Officer joined the centre’s staff in 2008 and was soon busy travelling the country; many Otago Pacific students came from Auckland or Wellington. From 2010 the centre brought Pacific leaders from around New Zealand to visit the Dunedin campus, so they could return and advise their communities about life at Otago. As the number of Pacific graduates grew, university education became more visible in the community and seemed an increasingly achievable aspiration.

As part of its engagement with Pacific Island communities the Pacific Islands Centre also initiated homework centres. Homework centres had been trialled many times in many places, but often didn’t survive long; having a paid organiser and the prestige of an association with the University of Otago gave them a better chance of longevity. The Dare to Succeed programme was for Pacific students in Dunedin high schools, with current Otago Pacific students as tutors. Further afield, Reverend Victor Pouesi and his wife Salome Pouesi, who visited Otago with the community leaders programme, set up a homework programme in Mangere, supported by the centre, in 2011; this is still going. These schemes were started as an outreach to the community rather than a recruitment tool, though some of the participants did end up as Otago students.

The Pacific Islands Centre has been a great force for good at Otago. It has contributed to a significant growth of Pacific engagement with the university: the number of students identifying as Pacific has tripled since the mid-1990s, reaching an all-time high of 751 in 2014. The dynamic Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai, in addition to supporting students, has been an important advisor on all things Pacific for the university. For some years she ran the centre alone, but it now has several staff. I wonder what Ratu Jione Dovi, who started his medical degree at Otago in 1929, would think if he could see over 700 Pacific Island students on campus today, not to mention a significant group of Pacific Island staff!

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Studying in the relaxed atmosphere of the Pacific Islands Centre, 2011. Image courtesy of University of Otago Marketing & Communications.