First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2013 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo
In the final year of my BA, a senior academic put me in a box. She told me that there were three types of students who enrolled in postgraduate study. The “A” students who always cruised through yet ended up with top grades. The “B” students who generally struggled with the content but would pull through with mediocre results. And the “C” students, who tended to disappear half way through their first year. She told me that I was the second type of student.
The lecturer also happened to be the postgraduate student adviser in my department. After laying down the hatchet (as I’ve come to think of it), she then went on to explain that her assessment of my capability was based on a quick perusal of my undergraduate grades. I had a smattering of As and a solid number of Bs. Based on what she saw on paper, I was likely to perform according to her observation of past student performance. She then went on to say that she wasn’t telling me this to deter me from enrolling, but rather to make sure that I was prepared for the likely outcome.
I remember leaving University that day feeling pretty dejected and full of self-doubt. The dream of going on to do a Masters degree stemmed from the fact that no one in my family had ever done so. I wanted to do things differently, to cross over into unknown territory and make my own mark. Thankfully, for me, it was around the same period in my life that I came across a relatively unorthodox and kooky professor who told me that, in his opinion, the advice received from his colleague was “rubbish”. He encouraged me to “show those bastards” that I could do anything and be anything. And I did. Two years later, I graduated with a first class, first division Masters degree in History.
To this day, I’ve never quite gotten over how instrumental each of these people were in challenging me to be more. To do more with every opportunity that has come my way. On the one hand, I’m thankful to the first lecturer for ‘putting me in a box’ because, although it makes me angry that she did so, she simultaneously gave me an opportunity to prove her wrong. On the other hand, I’m indebted her colleague, for taking on the role of a mentor and encouraging me to prove the establishment wrong.
Since leaving University, I’ve been confronted with many more challenges akin to the “B” student assessment. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a woman, of Pacific heritage, or younger than forty, but I am continually faced with situations where people underestimate my abilities. And every time I exceed and excel well beyond their low expectations, they are surprised. Which is somewhat insulting, to say the least.
Why shouldn’t a young woman of Pacific Island descent succeed in this country? Yes, it’s true that ‘the stats’ paint a pretty bleak picture of what the Pacific and Maori experience in New Zealand is, but what about the counter-stats? What about those of us who are excelling, doing well, making a contribution to the growth and development of New Zealand society? We do exist. And so do the mentors who’ve been there to encourage and support each of us along the way. For every one of them, there are ten of us.
Because of this, I was heartened when I read about the success of the “I Have a Dream” mentoring initiative, introduced to New Zealand from the USA by a successful Kiwi entrepreneur. Through the programme, kids – most of who are of Pacific descent – are provided with mentors who encourage them and give them opportunities to fulfil their potential. Even more significantly, support for each child is provided over a period of ten to fifteen years. The programme is not funded by the State but
through private sponsorship: philanthropy. While some would argue that the concept of “sponsored citizenship” has significant risk attached to it, my observation is that – right now – New Zealand desperately needs more of it. As the recent Nova-pay debacle illustrates, we simply do not have the leadership in Government required to quickly bring about social change in this country.
No one deserves to be put in a box. We all have the potential to be successful at whatever it is we love. The missing ingredient in New Zealand today is a willingness and desire to foster that kind of culture. In the absence of strong leadership from our academics and democratically elected leaders, the onus is on each of us to get out of the box, be a mentor for someone else and challenge ourselves to be more.