Higher education all in the family for Pasifika graduates


Simatavai Alefaio with his sister Associate Professor Siautu Alefaio-Tugia and her husband Wesley Tugia at the men's graduation day in Auckland.


When Samoan psychologist Associate Professor Siautu Alefaio-Tugia sat on the stage during Auckland’s graduation recently, she was clapping for two graduates in particular – her husband and her brother.

Intermediate school teacher Wesley Tugia, her husband, graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Emergency Management, and her younger brother Simatavai Alefaio was capped with a Master of Educational Psychology.

Dr Alefaio-Tugia, from Massey’s School of Psychology, says graduation day was; “truly overwhelming seeing both as Samoan males achieve academic success through graduating in areas they are passionate about.”

Mr Tugia says Professor David Johnston, Director of Massey’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research, encouraged him to apply for the postgraduate diploma as “there was no Pasifika representation in the Massey University emergency management space. Professor Johnston supported me and other Pasifika students to consider emergency management for disasters.”

After being made redundant in 2018 he took the opportunity to upskill through further education. The postgraduate diploma, he says, “helps me in my job as a school teacher [at Papakura Intermediate]. I can interpret the science-heavy messaging to the school community on what this may look like to engage the families. Moreover, I can help support a safety plan to mitigate the risks and respond to how we co-exist with the current pandemic Covid-19.“

The qualification will open doors in the future, he hopes. “I have the skills to look at policies and council planning and constructively think about supporting our communities. At the same time, I’m able to review and determine the risks I anticipate will contribute to accelerating the inequality and inequity within our communities.”

Although he initially found online study challenging, he worked “hard and smart” on time management and utilised the online courses to sharpen his study skills. “Once I got familiar with what was expected, my confidence began to grow. The other highlight was going to the one-week block course and meeting peers face to face. It was hugely beneficial to ask questions in a classroom-style setting and develop friendships to contributing to your studies.

“My late mother, who passed away while I was completing my bachelor’s degree in education, pushed me to become a teacher and Siautu continued by being my backbone and driving me to succeed,” he says.

Mr Alefaio (Dr Alefaio-Tugia’s brother) currently works as Associate Principal at Roscommon School. He began his career in education working as a Resource Teacher for Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) in a bi-lingual unit and says completing his master’s degree; “provided me with great insight into how I can support a lot of our children of South Auckland with cognitive and behavioural needs, especially being able to engage with our Pasifika families.”

Both men completed in 2020 – the year many family members from overseas had planned to come for the graduation celebration. “My late mother's brother from American Samoa had already paid his ticket to come but unfortunately due to Covid it wasn't to be,” says Dr Alefaio. “Both deferred until this year so they could participate in the graduation ceremony. I'm super proud of them both as they have worked so hard to complete their degrees.”

Associate Professor Siautu Alefaio-Tugia (centre, seated) with her brother, husband and extended aiga (family).


Parents and older sibling an inspiration

Both sister and brother credit their parents as the main influencers for their educational success. “They laid the foundation for education and were ahead of their time prioritising Samoan language which we had to speak at home, leaving English for school,” says Dr Alefaio-Tugia. “They launched one of the first Samoan language pre-schools in Aotearoa New Zealand, setting up in the manse (church-house) garage in 1982 and established the Pacific Islands Presbyterian church in Papakura South Auckland.” 

Mr Alefaio remembers a time when; “our father spent a couple of months at Oxford as part of a community-theology programme, mum joining him later. They got all the youth together and showed their videos of study and travel, even though they were old, they took opportunities to keep educating themselves.” 

He dedicates his achievement of a Master of Educational Psychology (Honours) to his late mother Pepe Matautu and acknowledges the support of his wife Samantha Jones. 

The siblings also credit their older brother Fa’amoe Timo with; “paving the way into university for us – we have overwhelming gratitude as he sacrificed his education to pay for ours. He was the first to attend [Auckland University] getting an A bursary in Māori but left early for employment to help our family financially.”

Dr Alefaio-Tugia, who has been a leading light in developing a Pasifika-oriented approach to psychology as well as facilitating numerous outreach education programmes for Pacific youth in Aotearoa and disaster management for communities around the Pacific region, believes Massey has many amazing areas of study for Pasifika to consider, “however getting these options across to Pasifika communities requires better alignment to academics who teach and coordinate them.” ​

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