Three Niuean siblings, all University of Otago alumni now working as GPs in Wellington, helped launch a book celebrating Pacific success in health sciences at the University.
Te Folauga: The Journey outlines the journey of Pacific students, staff and communities over the past 20 years in the Division of Health Sciences.
The Mitikulena family have been on their own journey since leaving their Niuean home in 1989 to shift to New Zealand.
Doctor Alvin explains their family migrated to Wellington from Niue in search of better opportunities, particularly to further the family’s education.
Today, the family operate their own general practice, Kilbirnie Medical Centre, in Wellington where all three work as GPs.
“We were all blessed to have been granted entry into medical school at the University of Otago through the Pacific Admisssions Programme at the time,” Dr Alvin explains.
While at that time there was no specific support centre for Pacific students studying in health sciences as there is today with the development of the Pacific Centre, Va’a O Tautai, Dr Alvin says the siblings were able to provide each other support.
“Something like Va’a O Tautai would have been helpful, but we had each other in a sense, which worked out well particularly in sharing text books as we were only a few years apart in class.
“We were all involved in the local Pacific community with our Seventh Day Adventist church where we participated in church services, youth group and we were also part of the Overseas Christian Fellowship.
“We had fellow Pasifika student friends who were also studying medicine or who had not long qualified who were very encouraging and supportive of us.”
Associate Dean (Pacific) Health Sciences, Faumuina Associate Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, who edited Te Folauga: The Journey, explains she felt it was important to tell the stories around the many Pacific successes within the Division of Health Sciences over the past 20 years.
“Often, we hear negatives around Pacific statistics, but I felt we also needed to hear about the success of Pacific students and how the University has contributed to increasing the number of Pacific students who are graduating and are out there making a difference in the health sector in a wide range of areas including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, pharmacists and dentists.”
In 2016, for the first time at the Otago Medical School, the proportional representation of Pacific students entering the medical programme was 8 per cent, mirroring representation of Pacific people in the community. This achievement has been maintained in subsequent years and last year the number of Pacific students accepted into Dentistry tripled, compared with the previous year.
Associate Professor Sopoaga says the University has not worked in isolation, the success is also due to the work done by the Ministry of Health which has invested heavily to support the journey of students, together with Pacific communities.
“However, this would not have happened without the support of University leaders who had the vision and were willing to walk the talk.”
Manager of the University’s Pacific Islands Centre, Tofilau Nina Kirifi-Alai, says the book outlines not only the University’s journey, but a journey of Pacific leadership with Associate Professor Sopoaga’s contribution acknowledged with her being awarded the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award at the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards last year.
“When we started out, we were struggling to be heard, but now we are more visible and that gives us hope.
“Often the Pacific story is not portrayed positively, but we have shown that we are successful and contributing to improving health outcomes for all New Zealanders. With a clear strategy and great leadership, you can turn around any challenges.”
Dr Alvin says he has fond memories of his time as a student and urges young Pacific people to consider the wide variety of options offered at the University of Otago.
“Dunedin is a student town and it caters for students well. There is a lot of support available to Pacific students now, so take the opportunity to get a world class degree when it comes your way.”