Telling the stories of our researcher whānau – ‘Alapasita Teu
26 July 2022
We spoke with researcher ‘Alapasita (Ala) about the importance of education for Pasifika peoples. She also shared her passion for what needs to change in research if aspirations for Pasifika peoples are going to be honoured and more likely to be met.
Ngā mihi nui to Maraea Rihari for this interview and writing.
Growing up in South Auckland, Ala refused to give into a lot of the stereotypes around being in a low decile school. She set out to prove that there is gold in schools like Ōtahuhu College, and this has led her to a path of advocating for education. And for communities to lead their own solutions.
“Ōtahuhu had challenges, like youth gangs, low-income families and poverty. But I saw those as opportunities to rewrite the narratives,” says Ala.
How do we equip those at the forefront of communities, and also those in those communities? For Ala, this is about equipping and upskilling people to be able to work out their own solutions.
This means not going into those communities with the attitude of, “I know it all – we’re going to do it this way! We come in to get alongside our communities and our families.” Ala would like to see more solutions to allow for that to happen.
“When you give space for the local voice to come through, there’s some magic that happens. Not to be wishy-washy about it, but there are some really creative solutions that a textbook or lecture won’t teach you. As a matter of fact, it’s people in their lived experiences and also collective wisdom that help to make those solutions happen. There is also an acknowledging of the challenges that come in those contexts in terms of the widening gaps between rich and poor.”
In 2018, ‘Alapasita Teu and Tasileta Teevale co-authored the article: What Enabled and Disabled First-year Pacific Student Achievement at University?
“We found that there are barriers and enablers at different levels that influence an individual. If we’re thinking of the individual level, there are things like personal motivation and time management that had an impact on a Pasifika student, also parental educational background, or maybe pressure and expectations from whanau on that young person. What support do we have in place in this institution that would support Pasifika aspirations or students?”
Research wasn’t in Ala’s original plan. a career was not the original plan. She initially wanted to study sports medicine, and this led her to public health. She was able to merge her love for learning and academia, but also her strong desire to contribute to her communities.
“I saw research as a way to bring those worlds together. I think it’s important if you love learning, if you’re an inquisitive person, research is a natural outlet for those things.”
Research is about people and Ala believes that this is often not at the forefront of research. And this means that the essence of research is often lost.
“People aren’t objects, they’re not to be objectified…or exploited. And that’s where I can add value; bringing people and communities to the forefront because I’ve seen the bad and the good things about policy decisions that don’t. I grew up in South Auckland. I saw really bad Council decisions or really bad educational policy decisions.” Ala says her South Auckland upbringing has shaped why and how she does research because she saw her community being left behind with decision making. At the heart of this is the currency of relationships when it comes to delivering
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‘Alapasita Teu is studying for her second Master’s degree while also holding down a job as a researcher at the Auckland-based independent and non-partisan think tank: Maxim Institute.
Part social commentator, Government critic and a researcher, Ala is consulted by the media or advises select committees when an erudite and ethical perspective as well as pristine research is needed. The critical glare of the media lens embracing a brown, positive role model is a long way from South Auckland and Ōtahuhu College:
“I grew up in the mighty South Auckland in Māngere East, where I did all my formative years of schooling. I went to local schools, all low-decile schools in a very vibrant and colourful neighbourhood that had obviously what you see in the media in terms of poverty and all those things. Funnily enough, I didn’t really think that was poverty growing up. I think people that grow up in circumstances that policymakers or researchers would define as poverty, people in communities in those settings don’t see themselves as that. So, I think that might have been a bit of my experience growing up. What I saw were communities, neighbours, families, and churches coming together to help one another out. Poverty was never a word tossed around in my upbringing.”
Ala then went to university and did her postgraduate Master’s in Public health at University of Otago, primarily around the educational achievement of Pasifika learners in the tertiary sector. This is where she discovered research.
“Studying was the most fun I had in my life in terms of being away from home for the first time, and that was a big deal for my whānau. And then also just being able to discover other walks of life or come into engagement with others who don’t look like me or from where I’m from or have similar world views to me.
Of Tongan and Samoan heritage, ‘Alapasita grew up in Tonga until her family migrated to New Zealand when she was ten. Her father is Tongan, from the villages of Ha’asini and Tatakamotonga, and her mother is Samoan from Moata’a and Vaiala. Her parents met at university.
“Education has a huge place in my whanau and whakapapa. I come from a family of educators or teachers and doctors and pastors.”
Her mother is a med lab scientist and focuses on education and achieving success through educational means. Her dad, now retired, used to be a teacher and accountant.
“I the oldest of five children and the eldest of 23 grandchildren – with that comes a bit of expectation,” says Ala.
She grew up in a home that had Christian values, and this faith was primary. A Christian worldview formed her own aspirations in terms of wanting to well for herself as well as honouring God.
“For me, it was a matter of keeping my parents’ sacrifice in mind in terms of opportunities when they would come my way. When we migrated to New Zealand, we had to be apart from my old man for like a year or so he could tie up loose ends back in Tonga. And then I saw my mother, who’s a qualified scientist, have to be overlooked because she didn’t have New Zealand experience in terms of her work area. I saw her have to pick up jobs that I thought she was overqualified for and work night shifts and me having to help out, and look after my siblings. I think that really impacts you and how you view opportunities when they come your way. When you see the love of your parents … give up things for yourself as a child, that really shapes who you are and what you do with those opportunities. So that was always front of mind for me.”
Your first classroom is at home
Did the example of her parents as educators and academics help to “smooth” her own pathway to success?
“There is still a degree of personal responsibility that an individual has to take on themselves and wanting to achieve in those areas. I worked hard to get to where I am today. I think sometimes that can minimise the integrity and the hard work and the character of that person that actually allows them to go into those pathways as well. But definitely, my love for learning started at home. I don’t say education; I say to learn. Education isn’t just where learning happens. Learning is a lifelong process. Your first classroom is at home. Because I had grandparents around growing up, that shaped a lot of how I viewed learning in general.”
Education is a fundamental tenet in Ala’s whānau and culture. “It’s a hierarchical class system. We have a monarchy. From that monarchy stems different class systems. Those class systems have inherent social statuses. For the common people, education is one of the circuit breakers or one of the ways to break out of that particular class system and give rise to self within that class system. Because I grew up in Tonga, that was a big driver in my family, not in terms of breaking class systems, but rather, education was seen as a way of securing income, to have job security, and all the other things that come with formal tertiary education. So that flowed into the way our family operates. We migrated to Āotearoa, New Zealand, because of educational aspirations.
“We’re wired to desire to help one another – help thy neighbour. When anything gets in the way of that, I think: How do we equip those at the forefront? How do we equip our communities? How do we also equip and upskill them to be able to outwork their solutions? And we support. We don’t come in like ‘I know it all – we’re going to do it this way!’ We come in to get alongside our communities and our families. So I think more solutions should allow for that to happen. And when you give space for the local voice to come through, there’s some magic that happens. Not to be wishy-washy about it, but there are some really creative solutions that a textbook or lecture won’t teach you. As a matter of fact, it’s people in their lived experiences and also collective wisdom that help to make those solutions happen. There is also an acknowledging of the challenges that come in those contexts in terms of the widening gaps between rich and poor.”
Education in Tonga and New Zealand
“The education system is a little different to New Zealand – there are clear distinctions between state-run schools or public schools and church-run schools. Tonga is a Christian nation and so our churches very much have a role in the education system. So, there are particular schools that are attached to certain denominations and they get to dictate their curriculum and how things are taught. And then state-run schools, obviously the government has a say over that.
“Schooling is quite competitive in the islands. From a young age, there is a ranking system. So you get placed in terms of how you perform within your own homeroom or your own class and then across your year level, nationally. I think other countries, like Korea, China, and some of the Southeast Asian countries, operate on this model of a national standard that students are ranked amongst. And that ranking provides the cream of the crop. From that cream of the crop is often where scholarship recipients come from.
“So there are scholarships and opportunities to go abroad. But it is a pretty tough slog. Yeah, you’ve got to be constantly keeping that at the forefront from a young age, if that’s where you want to be or if you want to get abroad because there are hundreds of other learners vying for that one scholarship as well. Both my parents were benefactors of those government scholarships and they got to go to Australia to study. That required being top of your class level and then ranking quite highly, nationally.”
Barriers and Enablers for First-year Pacific Student Achievement
In 2018, ‘Alapasita Teu and Tasileta Teevale co-authored the article: What Enabled and Disabled First-year Pacific Student Achievement at University? “We found that there are barriers and enablers at different levels that influence an individual. If we’re thinking of the individual level, there are things like personal motivation and time management that had an impact on a Pasifika student, also parental educational background; or maybe pressure and expectations from whanau on that young person. What support do we have in place in this institution that would support Pasifika aspirations or students?”
“There are lots of things that worked in the students’ favour. The family was seen as an enabler in the sense of being able to provide financial, emotional, and spiritual support. But on the flip side, the family was also noted as a barrier in the sense of the expectations of the young person to do a particular study program like be a doctor or a lawyer when their aspirations were in sports science or nutrition. So some of those dynamics were identified by the participants or the young people that I spoke to as barriers to them wanting to progress in their own ambitions or dreams because they’re trying to balance what their whanau and the collective want, (with) what they want, (which could be) different to the hopes and dreams of their whānau.
“We discovered that the university was wanting to attract Pasifika students down to Dunedin in particular, but not necessarily put the appropriate support systems in place for them. Some participants highlighted that they would experience what we termed as backlash from non-Pasifika peers about why they were engaging in these particular services. So, things like, there’s a Pacific Island center, there’s also Pacific staff, and there’s academic support in terms of tutorials that are specifically run by Pacific Services. For some learners, engaging in those services meant getting a bit of flak from their peers because that was seen as an advantage.”
The institution should be front-footing why these particular services are in place, and it shouldn’t always fall on those that run those spaces or Pasifika or Māori (to explain). That’s an institutional responsibility to help to make sure that all their learners in that institution understand why these things are in place and not have that being carried by the ethnic minority group that is fighting for these very things.”
‘Alapasita’s Dream Budget
“I’m big on education. I think there’s been huge under-investment under all political parties in our education sector. I would advocate for a budget that thinks of the future of our tamariki, of our young people, and think of the things shaping them. And if education is seen as this public good, yet it’s underperforming, it isn’t servicing all learners.
“I don’t know if people realise this, but we have a third of our tamariki not in school, our attendance school rates are at about 59% at the moment. And you’re telling me that we as a society are content with 330,000 of our children not getting an education or not being in some form of education? I just think that’s such a huge let-down that we would let it get to that. I would advocate for a budget that would invest in the education system, primarily teachers. Teachers are so undervalued. And for me, I know in my own schooling, two of my teachers were really influential in my university choices and subject choices.
“To see a particular profession like teachers not be valued or invested in or up-skilled along the way, I think that’s such a disservice to our young people and to our children. That’s not a license to undercut or shorthand them in terms of their education. And just because we’ve been through it and we’ve made it, that’s not a premise to be like: ‘You can do it too!’ because that’s not good enough. So I think we need more investment, a targeted investment that values all learners regardless of walks of life and what they come with.”
Research: you get to ask questions, you get to explore, you get to discover
Research as a career was not the original plan. “To be honest, I initially went to study wanting to get into sports medicine and then discovered public health, population health, and community health and being able to merge my love for learning and academia, but also wanting to contribute to my communities. I saw research as a way to bring those worlds together. I think it’s important if you love learning, if you’re an inquisitive person, research is a natural outlet for those things. My nature is: I’m quite an inquisitive person. I ask lots of questions. I am often dissatisfied with the status quo of something. If I see clear injustice or inequities, I just think part of this puzzle isn’t being explored. So I think my mum might testify to my nature of asking questions of growing up and also just (being) curious about the world. And I love learning. And research to me is learning because you get to ask questions, you get to explore, you get to discover.”
Don’t just walk the talk: be about it
“Where it goes a bit pear-shaped for me in terms of my pet peeve against research is that research consists of people. When we don’t keep that at the forefront of any research, whether it’s empirical or humanities based, narrative base, we’ve lost the essence of research. People aren’t objects, they’re not to be objectified. We’re talking about real life human beings created in the image of God. And so that needs to be treasured and that needs to be held with mana. And it’s not just think tanks that get this wrong – it’s all research organisations that can really miss the mark with just how we hold people’s mana when we go into research. People aren’t to be exploited.
“And that’s where I can add value; bringing people and communities to the forefront because I’ve seen the bad and the good things about policy decisions that don’t. I grew up in South Auckland. I saw really bad council decisions or really bad educational policy decisions.”
“I didn’t need someone to tell me that from Wellington. I saw that being outplayed in my school, in my church, in my community, and in my extended family. So I get it. But I think that isn’t a license to disregard people and that isn’t a license to keep people outside of the research realm. So I think it filters into our communities in various ways. A lot of it is through people like myself who really value going back to our communities and bringing them along for the journey. In my previous role, I worked at the university and taught as well. And so I would remind our young people, Pasifika in particular, that for our whānau, for our parents, they’ve never been to Uni. And so they don’t know any different. They don’t know this world. It’s on us who are in this world to bring our whānau along for the journey. And if that means that you have to explain to them what an assignment is or explain to them this is what happens in Uni, you’re also upscaling your whānau, as well.
“You’re contributing to their basket of knowledge about these things. I view research in the same light, in the sense that research is about people and it centers on people. We need to bring people along too. We don’t just come in, extract, take our gold and then just leave the mind to decay. No, we’re talking about livelihoods. We’re talking about families being impacted. So it’s on us as researchers to make sure that happens. And it’s not common practice. That’s probably where a lot of my frustration comes from, as a Pasifika researcher that operates in a collective from a collective culture. We don’t do things in isolation. We want to. And it doesn’t work because, you know, the collective pulls you back in. You’re trying to be independent. But independence is always in context to the collective.”
“I think sometimes that comes with the territory as a Pasifika or non-Pākehā researcher. I think for us, it’s important that our communities are always at the forefront and not in a tokenistic sense. You had to be about the people, too. There’s a saying in the hood like, don’t just walk the talk, be about it. I think a bit of my South Auckland upbringing has shaped why and how I do research. Because I saw my community being left behind with decision making, of research that I was dissatisfied with, really. And so I saw that, okay, these are the gifts that the good Lord has given me. I’m going to use them in this particular arena.”
Relationships are our Currency
“Engaging in this particular mahi in terms of the equity space, for Pasifika, Tongans in particular: relationships are our currency. In doing this particular mahi or this research project, we were mindful of the relationships that we had to uphold and be able to have them come alongside us. So there was a lot of groundwork that was done before I came into this particular project by our director in terms of maintaining certain strategic relationships with university leadership and governance and councils and helping them to understand why these things exist. I think a lot of that had to do with partnering with our Māori brothers and sisters. We know that for Māori, the battle, the fight is different. For Pasifika, it’s always important that we keep Māori issues and things that they need first (because) we never take from their pūtea. So we are able to work collaboratively with our Māori counterparts in terms of the equity office and be able to have them tautoko what we were trying to drive and vice versa.
“But that came down to our directors working together and understanding each other’s place in the context of the University of Otago, but also just knowing that we were there, our offices were there for one another and being able to push certain things at this level because we had each other’s back.
“A lot of that was driven because of relationships.”
Read ‘Alapasita’s work. What Enabled and Disabled First-year Pacific Student Achievement at University?