Three new starts in three years. I’ve been excited for all three of them and equally just as anxious – leaving New Zealand to start an MEd at Lehigh in 2010, moving from there to the Midwest for an employment opportunity at Lourdes in 2012 and now moving back to New Zealand in a month to take back what I’ve learned. I can honestly say it’s been life changing and all of it possible with the support of Fulbright.
People ask me all the time how it all happened so lemme run it back to 2009. I had just been appointed the Pacific Equity Adviser at the University of Auckland and I found myself at a conference for APSTE [Association of Pasifika Staff in Tertiary Education] in Wellington. It was an awesome networking event, meeting passionate, like-minded people who wanted to share resources in encouraging Pacific people to pursue higher learning. Mele Wendt, Fulbright’s Executive Director, was in attendance and presenting on the different awards we could promote to students. That was my first time coming across Mele and I instantly liked her – if you meet Mele, you can tell right away that she runs a tight ship but she knows how to have fun too! I came away from APSTE feeling re-energised and ready to take on the world.
Over the next week I sat in my office in Auckland reviewing notes from the fono when I took another look at the Fulbright materials – “…promoting mutual understanding between the peoples of New Zealand and the United States of America by means of educational and cultural exchange…” I can still remember the moment when I went through the criteria and it dawned on me that I was eligible to apply – I literally yelled out loud “WAIT A MINUTE!” I didn’t know any Fulbright recipients so for a good hour I debated with myself whether it was a good idea to give Mele a call. As warm and approachable as Mele is, the idea of talking to someone with her standing [not to mention her family’s prominence in New Zealand and the wider Pacific community] is still quite nerve-racking. I sucked it up and decided I would take a chance and give her a bell, hoping she would remember me. Luckily she did [or at least she was polite enough to make out that she did!] The conversation ended up going really well! Mele was generous with her time. She was really helpful while being realistic in her advice. She directed me to the Fulbright Campus Advisor to have a chat to and from there I gathered my thoughts.
The situation was a somewhat familiar one. When I was a senior at high school, I decided I wanted to study at the University of Auckland. To be honest, I knew nothing about its academic programmes or its reputation. My siblings, Miki and Leini, went to Victoria University in Wellington and Porirua wasn’t a target area for recruitment so we never had reps coming through [that changed once I started working for them and made it a priority for me to go back to the four colleges in the area every year]. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to who had studied in Auckland nor did I know anyone else who was going to study there – shit, I hadn’t so much as even visited the campus before. In my head, I just wanted to try something new and Auckland was the hot spot cuz all my Mum’s family lived up there [something my Mum absolutely FEARED given how tricky the family dynamics can be!] With no guidance from my teachers or my family and friends, I took the initiative to snoop around online and applied for a scholarship that would cover all five years of tuition, the Chancellor’s Award for Top Scholars. It paid off!
This time around with Fulbright, I was miles ahead of my 17 year old self – I actually had someone knowledgeable to talk to about the organisation I was eager to be a part of and who better to speak with than the Executive Director! Growing up, my Dad always said to us “it’s not what you know but who you know” so with this new connection, I knew I had to throw my hat in the ring. The whole process was extremely competitive but it was time for me to repeat what I had done all those years ago and take my own advice that I’d been giving to students for years:
– The only way to grow is to challenge yourself.
– You gotta be in it to win it.
– The worst that can happen is they say “no” – you got nothing to lose.
When I got the phone call from Fulbright with the good news, I was screaming my head off. The first person I called was my Mum who I knew would start crying. She works around the corner from the Fulbright office so she took some chocolates over to Mele whose team remains an awesome source of support to this day [they’ve dealt with all kinds of frantic phone calls/emails to do with things like me being detained by security on the way to Israel and a few other visa horror stories]. Right after that, I went around to visit everyone in person who acted as a reference and helped me go over essay drafts and interview preparation – most notably my long time mentor and dear friend Tanya [I’m gonna save that story for another entry].
Everything started falling into place. Fulbright provided $25,000 toward study costs. You would think that’s heaps but it barely covers two semesters in tuition at a private US university HOWEVER given the prestige Fulbright carries, it’s common for schools to offer incentives to its scholars to get them to attend. The academic accomplishments and career achievements of these cats are mind blowing so they’re in high demand. As a direct result of now carrying the Fulbright status, I was offered tuition waivers from a number of schools. I’d never heard of Lehigh before but I decided to go with them cuz the campus looked nice on the website and I liked that NYC and Philly were less than two hours drive away. When I found out kids pay $55,000 a year to attend I almost shit my pants. I managed to secure a $10,000 grant from the Ministry of Education then made another $5,000 running a Date Auction as my farewell party. If there’s one thing I learned from growing up in Porirua, it’s how to hustle.
Lehigh was a blessing. Those have to be two of the best years of my life. I left there feeling like I had bettered myself in so many ways and given a hand in helping others better themselves too. I’ve rattled off Top 10 highlights lists before but the best part of any experience for me is always the people and relationships you build. I didn’t think I’d get so close to people the way I did but as it turns out, my friends here relate to me better than most did back home.
Now for Lourdes! Some people believe in signs from a higher power. Others believe we make them up in our heads to justify a decision we really wanna make. I fall into both categories. That’s how I picked Lourdes University as the space for my academic training. I’ve been telling everyone right from the start, when I flew into Ohio for my job interview and met Frank, it was a wrap.
Frank’s family is Black, Hawaiian and Samoan and he’s pretty proud of all of the identities this carries. He got recruited by Lourdes to play volleyball while he was a senior in high school in Jacksonville, Florida. He recently got selected to represent the US in a tournament in Amsterdam too. In saying that, athleticism’s no stranger to his family, having an older brother who had a successful career in professional football [I call him out on that when he decides to get fresh like he’s from the streets – no ho, you have a brother in the NFL so your street is in a gated community with a pool out the back]. What I like about Frank the most is that he’s a people person – he’s quite mature for his age but at the same time he’s goofy as hell. Coming out to the middle of nowhere [no shade Sylvania…well maybe just a little] and meeting another young, vibrant/ridiculous Samoan was a deal breaker.
Lourdes was a stark contast to Lehigh. Lehigh is an elite and wealthy institution, predominantly white and constantly moving and shaking. Lourdes on the other hand is still in its early stages of growth and considerably modest in comparison. We have a much larger black/latino student population too [the other main reason why I came here – the change in demographics to something closer to where I come from]. I went from seeing kids driving around in BMWs everyday to seeing hoopties with wire coat hangers holding up their windows, barely making it out the parking lot.
I’ve had a blast working with my students here and spending these last 15 months getting to know them but it’s no secret that I’ve had my fair share of struggles – namely becoming a recluse! Working for a university in a pastoral role, you spend most of your time socialising with students. I found it hard just meeting peers in my age group with similar interests let alone making friends [through noone’s fault – sometimes you just don’t click with the people around you]. Frank’s a moepi but I often found myself relying on him for moral support. I actually came to rely on a core group of students a lot to get me through the year – their energy and affection filled the gap of not having my usual crew around [that and my trips to see family and friends in NYC/Miami/Chicago every other weekend]. I think it’s important to maintain certain boundaries with students and while I’ve done that throughout the year, I’ve come to consider them friends too. It’s because of them that I’m leaving with an undivided heart that it was all worth it. I’ve grown as a person out here and I like to think I’ve helped them grow a little along the way too.
Three goodbyes in three years. I’ve been an emotional wreck through all three of them – it doesn’t get easier! Now that my visa’s expired, not only am I leaving Lourdes but I’m leaving the US. People talk about the culture shock of moving to another country but I think the culture shock for me will be moving back to New Zealand. It’s time though – there’s a lot waiting for me at home as a member of my family and my community. I pride myself in my ability to stay in touch [even when it’s against your will – I’m that good]. What’s next? I’ll let you know. So many doors have opened for me. Whatever I do I know I’ll continue to work hard at opening doors for others in the same way. A massive thanks to everyone who played his or her part in my journey here. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am. I’ve been inspired by your generosity, your leadership, your intelligence, your wit, your stories and most of all, your big hearts. Alofa tele atu.