The power of community to help achieve an academic goal


Dr Suliasi Vunibola at his graduation in November.

Dr Suliasi Vunibola at his graduation in November.


Massey University PhD graduate Dr Suliasi Vunibola’s journey to completing his doctorate took him from being a teacher in Fiji to a post-doctoral fellow at Massey Business School, and he credits God, the support of family and friends for helping him get there. 

His PhD thesis E da dravudravua e na dela ni noda vutuni-i-yau’ - Customary land and economic development: Case studies from Fiji interrogated the assertion that within the Pacific islands, culture and customary measures are mostly viewed as impediments to positive economic development.

His research sought to switch-over these claims with a purpose to determine how indigenous Fijian communities have been able to establish models of economic undertaking which allow successful business development while retaining control over their customary land and supporting community practices and values. 

Dr Vunibola, Nubunilagi, Vitina/Nawi, Naduru-Dogotu’i/Qaraimasi, Namuka - Macuata/Vuniivi Levu, Nau’u, Vaturova - Fiji, used a novel combination of culturally aligned research frameworks like the Vanua Research Framework for his overaching methodology.

His study found that customary tenure and cultural values can support socially embedded economic development activities in the Pacific. It also reinstates the inherent value of customary land as an intergenerational resource aiding self-determined and inclusive development, including economic activities that provide holistic returns to communities as in socio-cultural contributions and community development initiatives.

Dr Vunibola’s path to a PhD brought him from Fiji to New Zealand. “While attending high school at home in Fiji, some students from my school were applying to study in New Zealand. A few years later, some of my lecturers at the University of the South Pacific had studied in New Zealand, and I pondered if I could do that too.

“I was a teacher and taught for 12 years and decided to proceed with my educational development overseas. I brought my family and settled in Palmerston North in 2016 to do a Postgraduate Diploma in International Development at Massey,” he says.

He arrived in New Zealand with a six-month family visa. “I managed to pay half of my international student tuition fees, and alternated between studying and working at five other jobs to support my family– my wife and two young daughters, Eliezer and Ana, and to pay my fees for the second semester, which were very expensive. Professor Nick Rahiri Roskruge, close friend and a mentor also helped me get through all these challenges to finish my Postgraduate Diploma in International Development.”

In 2017, Dr Vunibola received a scholarship through the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund, via the “Land has Eyes and Teeth” project at Massey’s Institute of Development Studies led by Professor Regina Scheyvens, Professor Glenn Banks and Dr. Litea Meo-Sewabu. The group projects involved collective efforts in research, writing retreats, monthly catch-up meetings, conferences and symposiums, reading and discussion groups and publications, attending and contributing to postgraduate block courses as a guest lecturer, peer mentoring sessions, the multiple attendances to grasp endnote referencing, and other Ph.D. academic workshops.

He says it had it challenges. “With my family, we are away from our whānau in Fiji, and that is tough when we usually depend on our families to help us with our children, primarily when the needs arise in attending classes and work,” he says. The Samoan early childhood learning centre Malamalama Moni Aoga Amata EFKS in Palmerston North helped look after the children at their pre-school and after-hours activities.

“Maintaining a balance between studies and family was also challenging especially when I needed to travel to conferences, writing retreats, and undertake field research in Fiji for three months. My family friends helped to look after my children in my absence when my wife needed to work. I thanked the Lord Yeshua Hamashiach - Jesus the Messiah without whom I won’t be here today. I also thanked my family for allowing us to go through these challenges together to get through the PhD within the three year of the project – now it’s done.

“The reading, writing, discussions, collaborations, publication, guest lectures, conferences, symposiums, meetings, and thesis compilation are all part of the process. At times, it can be a bit overwhelming, and the need to manage and juggle between running projects simultaneously. The “rest” in between is key to recuperate and to maintain work momentum. The Weslyan Stream Gathering Fijian Church also assisted our transition and vision.”

He says he is enjoying his current role as a Post Doctorate Fellow with Te Au Rangahau (Māori Business Research Centre) at Massey Business School.  “I undertake and contribute to research for assigned projects in regards to indigenous entrepreneurship focusing on Māori and the Pacific.”

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