Being Pasifika in Academia

“When you’re up there, you’re not by yourself. You’re representing all of us.”
— Professor Tania Ka’ai

As written for Auckland university of technology

September 2, 2015


At the culmination of AUT’s 2015 Postgraduate Week, I participated in the Master’s finals of our university’s three minute thesis (3MT) competition. For the unaware, it is exactly what it sounds like: a time for postgraduate students to apologise for being hangry and sleepless in isolation for months.

Specifically, a challenge to “edu-tain” an intelligent, non-specialist audience about our research projects – in three minutes.

If you think this is easy, your name is Jon Snow.

I didn’t think I’d make it to the finals. For the heats, I threw my slides together in an hour and wrote my speech the night before presenting. I initially entered the competition for the practice. The prizes were an effective lure. But by the time we got to the finals, I realised there were larger implications.

At my first postgraduate writing retreat for Pacific Island students, Tagaloatele Professor Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop expressed something that still resonates with me: “The knowledge we’re pursuing is not just for you or me, it’s knowledge for the community.”

When you enter university as an undergraduate, you rarely know what you’re getting into. You want the qualification that will open the door to more employment. You cross your fingers that your program will provide you with the means to live well, whatever that means to each of us.

When you come back for postgraduate studies, your eyes are wide open to the gauntlet of academia. BYO bandages. Keep your support network on speed dial. You have to want it, and it really helps to know why you’re signing up for more pain.

I did not leave a safe profession across the pond because I wanted to be accredited with more letters after my name.

It is, simply, really hard to watch people you love struggle when you know you have the means to help them. Or, more accurately, to help them help themselves and others.

As a Pacific culture, many of us nowadays have this habit, you see, of deferring to others. Of watching our hands in our laps and holding our tongues. Out of respect, we let others speak for us and make decisions. We cringe when it's misinformed or short-sighted. We then complain when the chance to make a difference has passed. It is both an aggravating and heart-breaking phenomenon.

Standing on the stage of the 3MT finals, I wasn’t only representing my school. I have never so explicitly been a representative of the Samoan community before. For the umpteenth time through this journey, I despaired: “What am I doing? The Samoans won’t want to work with me, I’m an afakasi (mixed race; half-caste). I’m not yet fluent in Samoan. I’m still learning the customs. I didn’t grow up in Auckland. Who am I to speak about this?”

The "impostor syndrome" was first termed "the impostor phenomenon" by psychologists Doctor Pauline Rose Clance and Doctor Suzanne Imes in 1978. It was described as an internal feeling of being an intellectual phony, that we somehow didn't deserve what we achieved, and didn't deserve to pursue more.

A lot of work continues into understanding where this idea comes from for different people, especially at the intersection of race, gender, and professional status. But if you want good things for the people around you, don't you first have to accept that you are one of those people? That to empower others, you yourself have to be empowered?

I had found the answer in my own speech.

The Samoan people have great potential and are already contributing at every level of society, but there are not enough of us. Empowering our next generation with the skills and resilience to adapt and confront new challenges, requires them to first recognise that their voices matter, that they have the ability and the right to effect change within their communities in new and creative ways.

My name is Amy Tielu and I’m researching the ways that immersive storytelling can help diasporic Samoan communities effect change they want in their communities. If this is something that interests you, I would love to hear from you.

Pursuing this Masters is a humbling and terrifying responsibility that gets easier every time someone else raises their voice. What must it have been like for that first person who stood up and said, “This isn’t good enough, we want better for ourselves”?

So, although I usually broaden my messages to everyone, this time I want to address my fellow Pacific youth: You are already a part of this global community. You have the right to care about leaving the world a better place. You were born with the means to do so. Practice and learn to trust in the strength of your own voice, whatever form that may take. You will be scared. You will call yourself an impostor. You are entitled to tell that fear to die in a fire.