Community Facilitator

Name: ‘Akesa
Age at interview: 25 years
Occupation: Community Facilitator

Ethnicity: Tongan
Country of birth: Australia

In this video
0:00:00Early Childhood
0:03:34Primary School
0:05:23First Trip to Tonga
0:07:12High School – Early Years
0:19:14High School – Senior Years
0:25:20First Job
0:26:58University Offer
0:29:35Leaving Home
0:35:14University Years
0:48:55Graduating University and Turning 21
1:03:56Role Models
1:08:18Parent’s Influence
1:12:19Cultural Values & Language
1:16:54Advice for Pasifika Youth

Early Childhood


I think I might start from the very start. I’m currently 25 now. So I was born in 1995 in Mildura. So locally, I was born here. It’s about 80 k’s from where we currently live in Robinvale. My parents, my two oldest siblings, I’m the third child out of four. My parents had the two older siblings in Sydney and then myself and the younger sibling in Mildura, so locally here. Yeah, so I’ve grown up here, went to school here. I think from the earliest I can remember we actually lived with my dad’s sister. So we had two families in the one house, which is kind of, I think then was common for families coming to Robinvale, especially for the farm work, harvesting.

We lived with my dad’s sister for a while, and she had five kids of her own and my parents had four kids. So it was a bit of a crowded house growing up, but it’s always good living with family. It’s always good being surrounded by that. I think my parents, as young parents, appreciated the support too. So it was fun. Eventually we moved to a pickers hut, on the farm. So my parents were grape pickers, they pick grapes, and we lived in a pickers hut in, out in section E. So we lived in a vineyard farm on a vineyard. It was very small, very small. It was like a cabin.

And my youngest sister wasn’t born yet. She was born maybe a year after. And I remember it was just, it was also free on the farm, learn how to ride a bike, you know, or running through the grape vines. And yeah, it was a simple, very simple life. We didn’t have a car then that would have been ’90…I would have been four. So maybe ’99. It would be 1999 when we were living in the pickers hut.

My oldest sister, she was the only one in school then. So my brother and I, we were at home. Yeah. And then, eventually we moved into a bigger house. We moved to a farm, this one that had animals on the farm, but it was a much bigger house than the pickers hut.

That’s when the, our youngest sister was born when we moved to the bigger house, and it was different for us to be in a actual house. We had a three-bedroom house, an en suite in the master and we had a billiards room and we had a wrap-around veranda, big driveway and animals.  They had horses and pigs and cows, some sheep. And it was fun. My, my dad worked for the local carrot farm, so it was good. And then for us that…we eventually, that was when we were going to school.

Primary School

So I started school in 2000. I started prep and it was, it’s a very fun memory that…the house is still there today, but because it was out on a farm, we had to ride our bikes all the way up the driveway. And the driveway is about a hundred meters, maybe a little bit longer.

Then we had to cross the road in a hundred meters, you know, to our right and stash our bikes in the bush to catch the bus and then on the way back from school, we had to collect our bikes from the bush again, and then ride a hundred meters and then another a hundred meters just to get home.

So that was fun. And that was when us three older ones were in school. So, and we went to school at our local public school, [in] Robinvale.  

We all completed primary school there. And then from there we moved into town. So we, my parents moved into town. Again. We lived with my cousin then. So it was my auntie’s daughter. We lived with her, her two young children and her grandpa. So it was a crowded house again, but we didn’t feel like we lacked anything or it was, it didn’t seem like a big deal back then. We thought it was normal to have more than one family live in a house. Then we got our own house in town, but yeah, we’ve been in town ever since my parents eventually bought our family home. And yeah, then we completed school.

First Trip to Tonga

In 2005 was our first family vacation to Tonga and growing up in a, in an Anglo church, we attended Uniting Church. So our church, in our congregation our services are in English and we have Tongan services maybe once a month and on Wednesday nights weekly. So when we went to Tonga, it was a very different experience for us. It was very, it was an eye-opener for us to go to Tonga in 2005, I would have been 10, in year five, we actually flew to Fiji first and then went to Tonga.

And it was great. I mean, my parents hadn’t been back to Tonga in over 20 years. I think it would have been or 15, 20 years. And it was, it was very humbling to see them back in their home environment, back to where they called home. And it was a different kind of patriotism to see them be proud of where they came from and showing us where they grew up in a very different environment than what they provide for us at home. I mean, in Australia and it was a big eye-opener for us. And to be able to experience that at a young age and then come back to Australia and be very grateful for the opportunities that our parents were providing for us, was a big part of us and our work ethic moving forward.

High School – Early Years

So I finished primary school when we came back. So then I started high school at [high school name] in 2007, by then I…by then it was, it was getting difficult. I was understanding then that I was different. I was understanding then that, especially coming back from Tonga, there are expectations of a Pasifika young woman and what the stereotypes were for me and what those barriers were going to be and being stubborn, I suppose. I wouldn’t accept those things without challenging them. I remember, yeah. Year seven, I was, I rebelled against everyone. I didn’t want to do what I was told. I had no ambition because there was just so much negativity with the stereotype and it wasn’t only the stereotype coming from the Anglo-Saxon community. It was more so what was getting to me was the stereotype coming from my own people from the Pasifika community, from within my own family, that the expectation was very minimal for me.

And I didn’t like that. So I rebelled. I didn’t take school seriously in year seven. I cannot tell you how many times I was suspended, kicked out, in detention. How many times I then had to go and pick grapes or help my dad weld, my dad is a welder. And he used to weld the triangles for the vineyards. And yeah, I much preferred to be outside working. And every time I got kicked out of school, I did say, just let me go out and work. I can help the family. I can just, I can provide income for the family. I can do that. I can pick a box of grapes. I can lift the box. I can learn how to drive a forklift, all those things, I don’t need to be at school. And that was the expectation that I was going to drop out.

That I wasn’t very bright, so that I wasn’t, basically I wasn’t going to amount to anything. And we did have a liaison officer there and he sat me down and had a stern talking to me and he said, “Well, do you realise where your parents are right now? Where are your parents right now? Why are you sitting here in the principal’s office? Where are your parents right now?” And then all these flashbacks came back to me of the, the life that my parents left in Tonga compared to what we had. And he said, “Well, where are they right now?” I said, “Well they’re outside, they’re at work.” And he goes, “Well, where’s work?” I said, “Well, it’s in the vineyards picking grapes.” And he goes, “How hot is it outside?” Robinvale averages 40-degree heat in summer. And that’s harvest period for grapes, you know? And they don’t, they don’t knock off due to heat. They knock off when the grapes are picked and when the order’s fulfilled, that’s when they knock.

So it was year seven, year eight. I got kicked out of high school in year eight. I was too young to be suspended. And so then, I was too young to be expelled. I had to be in school. I was 13, 14.

And so they couldn’t expel me because I had to be in school. So I was suspended for the remainder of the year. And I remember my mum, she came to the school, and she said, she was so embarrassed. And I said, I was sitting there. I was like this, I was angry. I was like, “Nobody listens to me”, blah, blah, blah. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t even want to be here. I don’t even want to be at school.” You know, I didn’t like the school, I didn’t like the teachers. I didn’t like my classes. And because I was so difficult, they didn’t even allow…I’m pretty sure there were some classes that I wanted to take that I wasn’t allowed to take, simply because they thought I wouldn’t take it seriously, or I wouldn’t complete it.

So there were some classes where I was wasn’t allowed to take it. And so I felt like nobody cared, nobody listened. And it didn’t matter anyway, because they didn’t expect anything from me. And so the last time I got suspended and my mum came up to the school and she was so embarrassed.

She had come to school in her work clothes to deal with me. Yeah. And it was difficult. It was hard because I was so ungrateful. And I think I wouldn’t be as grateful as I am now if I didn’t experience…but yeah, she wasn’t happy. She wasn’t happy. She came to school when she picked me up and came home and regardless of how many times she had to pick me up from the school or how many times the liaison officer had to bring me home and talk to my parents. It didn’t matter to them how many times they had to take me back. They took me back every single time to the school, to the principal’s office. Every single time. I couldn’t tell you how many times, but yes, bless her cotton socks. She took me back every single time sat me in the principal’s office, made me apologise.

And she didn’t only make me apologise. She made sure that I was genuine about my apology. And I think she valued education for us. It was one of the biggest motivations for her to come here to Australia to raise us here was for the education. And she would be 50, was 52 years old. And she will still go out and pick a box of grapes in the heat for us and her grandchildren.

So it’s a work ethic that’s passed on. And when you’re very grateful for that, we’re very grateful for that work ethic and the opportunities that come with it. So yeah, very, very proud of that journey. We have a home, we have education. We have cars, we have all these things from picking grapes, initially, picking grapes and doing the hard yards in the heat, in the 40-degree heat. So, and here I was wasting my education being stubborn, getting kicked out of school while they were picking grapes. And I became aware of that, and I wish I became aware of that very much sooner than I did, but I didn’t. And I think that’s something that I regret, but I feel is a big motivator to why I work so hard now.

So I got kicked out of school. I got kicked out of high school in year eight, in 2008. I got kicked out towards the end of term three. And I ended up completing year eight at the [high school name]. And I remember my first day of [high school name], my parents had got up early and had gone to work and my sister would have been in year 12. So she was 17, 18 by then, or she would have been 18 by then. And so my siblings, they were all at the public school. And here’s me going to private school because I got kicked out of that school with all my siblings. So those three, my other three siblings. They walk to school together. And I had to walk the other way by myself.

That morning everyone got ready. They went to school and I’m still at home. The phone’s ringing, I answer the phone, I said “Hello it’s ‘Akesa speaking”. And it’s the principal of the school, the principal of my new school. And she goes, “We’re expecting you at school. It’s past nine o’clock you’re not here.” And I said “I’m on my way. I’m just having breakfast.” This is past nine o’clock. I had no regard for anybody’s time. I was just doing my own thing.

But by the time I left [high school name] my punctuality was better. I was enjoying it. I was enjoying school and yeah, it was maybe it was a change that I needed because I went back to the high school in 2009. And yeah, things changed for me very quickly after that experience. It was a lot grateful for what I had and I was grateful for what I didn’t have. And I realised what I didn’t have, we weren’t well off, but we had more than enough. And I think that’s what I was…I was caught…I was aware of what I didn’t have and that I didn’t fit in. And I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that. I was in a category. I already knew back then that I was in a category that I was female for one, that I was an Islander, that I was younger than my year. You know, I was the youngest. I was in my graduating class. I was one of two that was 17, when we finished school. Everybody else was 18. They had their license, blah, blah, blah,

They would have new things. People in my class would have new things. When the MP3 players came out or when, even when the Walkman’s came out, when the iPods came out, things like that, the new phones came out, the Motorola Razr or whatever it was. We didn’t have all those nice things and I was aware of that, and it was a bit, you know, it didn’t fit in and it wasn’t that I needed one, but I was labelled, I was labelled and yeah. We were part of the low to medium socioeconomic status. And I was okay with that. I was having fun, but I was obviously labelled and that just got me.

High School – Senior Years

And Year ten, I started VCE in Year 11, which was hard for me because I knew that I could do VCE, what I was actually encouraged to do [was] VCAL. And that didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t like that. I knew VCE was going to be hard, but I knew I was capable and doing VCAL…I loved it. I wanted to do VCAL because I loved the opportunity to work with my hands. I love the opportunity to actually go out and do work. But yeah, I did VCE. Come Year 11, resilience and ambition was lacking a lot because of the stereotype, because of the opportunities that were available, because of the barriers that were in my head that were drilled into my head by my surrounding community, my Pasifika people. We’re just going to do VCAL and then do nothing.

Or we’re just going to, “Oh yeah, let’s do VCAL because we can bludge. Oh yeah. Because we can just do music”. And one of, one thing that just gets me, it’s so patronising, is they’re always like, “Oh, are you Islander? You must be really good at music. You have really beautiful voices”. Yeah. We have beautiful voices, I don’t. I can’t sing. But in saying that, that’s all, they kind of think we are, that we can just, we’re just good at performing. We’re good at playing the guitar and singing. It’s patronising. We are capable of so much more.

And so I was like I am Islander, but I wanna do VCE I think, you know, I’ve got some things to learn. I’ve got some catching up to do, but I can do it. And I want to do it. And in Robinvale, and especially in Victoria, AFL is the dominant sport in Victoria, but we love our footy, as in rugby league and rugby union. We love that. And so in Year 11, we were deprived of that. There was no rugby league in the town and everybody else played AFL and not every Pasifika kid could afford to play AFL. So they just play footy at the park, rugby league or union at the park.

And so I said to myself, “Well I’m going to, I’m going to do this. I’m going to, I’m going to go to university. I’m going to get my degree and I’m going to come back and I’m going to bring footy to my community for my people, for the people who are disadvantaged, the people who have passion for this, the people who have, you know, yeah. Just passion and the skill for it that had been deprived of the opportunity”. I said, “I’m going to go, and I’m going to bring that back here for our community”, because it’s an, sometimes it’s a natural thing for Pacific people to be good at sport. I like music. I like other things, but also intellectually.

So I said, “Yeah, I’m going to go do that…I’m going to do that. That’s going to be my goal to go and bring footy back to Sunraysia”. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I just said that that was going to be my goal. And so come year 12, I had preparations for exams, preparations for our SACs. And it takes a lot of time. So, I mean, I had three other siblings at home and my parents and the school offered homework classes. So I said, “Well, I’m going to go use the resources at the school”. And we have a few Tongan teachers at the school that teach math and science. And so I said, “I’m going to take advantage of that. I’m going to go get tutored. I’m going to do my maths, my business and health and human development”, whatever it was. I could do it at the school after hours. If I needed a quiet space or…it was available to me. So I said, “I’m going to stay and I’m going to use it”.

There were a lot of people who were negative towards my ambition that I grew myself because I was stubborn. People were telling me no, you’re…when they told me to do VCAL not VCE, that got me. When they tried to influence what subjects I took, that got me. When they tried to tell me, don’t come back to school, just go to work. That got me.

And I was very grateful that my mum dragged me back to school every single time, because then it finally clicked in my head, I’m going to prove them all wrong. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do VCE. I’m going to go to university. I’m going to try my best. And my best is good enough. The self-affirmations started to come naturally, that I wanted to do it. That people were patronising me. And I knew my worth. I didn’t know what my worth was. And apparently it was a lot because I’ve done what I’ve done, and I stuck to it. But the self-affirmations and, and the resilience that came from it, I don’t think I would have used it to its potential had I not gone, had I not experienced that.

And I feel had I not been patronised, I wouldn’t have appreciated what my parents have done for me or where I am or what I had available to me. I might not have had everything available to me, but I had enough. I had a lot more than other people had to be grateful for.

First Job

And anyway, I did Year 12. I was waiting for my exams. I got a job at the local…yeah, Year 12. I got a job at the local leisure centre. It was my first real job, not on the farm. My job, I wasn’t picking grapes, I was a lifeguard at the local swimming pool, leisure centre. And not long after I was a duty manager there as well. So my parents were very happy. I was working an actual job that everybody just said, oh, “You just go to the farm, you’re not going to do anything, so just go”. But I didn’t.

I went and got a job at the leisure centre and the qualifications to be a lifeguard was a lot, not only first aid, you had your working with children’s check, and this was all brand new to me. They don’t help, they didn’t help me get these things. These were things that I had to go and learn on my own because I just thought I wasn’t going to make use of things like these. First aid, working with children’s check and writing a resume and things like that. So the job was good for me. I had a routine, I had people who trusted me to get the job done. I was learning skills. I was managing, inventory. I was managing staff. I was delegating tasks. So I was in charge of the centre. I was in charge of people.

University Offer

And I remember waiting for our exam results. And I was too scared to look at my exam results that I didn’t look at them. I waited until I got an offer. I was so nervous. And anyway, we were all at work and there was myself and two other of my fellow classmates that were lifeguards as well. And our manager also applied. Our manager then was Tongan, and he applied for university as well. So there was four of us in the office cooped up around the computer because you could check your offers online. You just type in your first initial and your surname and your offer comes up if you’ve got one. And so those three went first. I was like, “I’ll go last”. I wasn’t confident at all. All the negative thoughts and all the negative things that people had said to me that had built up, was playing in my head.

My resilience was low. I was so nervous. I was, ‘Oh, what were you thinking ‘Akesa? Why did you apply? As if you’d get in, as if, just this is going to be it for you, you can just work here. I will settle for this. So I’m happy with being a lifeguard. This is an actual job.’ But in my heart, I knew my goal was to work for the NRL. And my goal was to bring the NRL here for my community. That was my, it was my dream job. I knew that that’s what I wanted.

So anyway, it was my turn and I’ve typed my initials into the computer and my offer came up. And it wasn’t just any offer, it was my first preference offer that came up on the screen. And I was just overwhelmed. I was so overwhelmed. I didn’t even…I had to refresh the page because I had proven so many people wrong. And I had proven myself wrong, which was the biggest thing. I mean, I hadn’t been, I didn’t like being proven wrong by anyone, but I proved myself wrong. And it began from there. I had a different confidence to myself, and it was just that moment I knew that I was going to do it. I was going to work for the NRL, and I was going to come home and I was going to work here. I didn’t know how I was going to get the NRL because back then there was no rugby league here. There was no game development officer here. There was no competition here. There was nothing. And so I was like, “How do I do it? How do I do it?” And it just happened.

Leaving Home

I went to university in my first year, in the weeks leading up to leaving Robinvale, I was working, I was saving. I was still 17. I was still young. And the weeks leading up to leaving Robinvale, I had never been to Ballarat before. So the offer was for a double degree, Bachelor in Sport Management and Bachelor in Business. And then I could choose my, my major, whether I wanted to major in tourism or marketing. And I ended up majoring in marketing.

But I remember the weeks leading up, I had pulled as many shifts as I could at the leisure centre. And I used the excuse that I wanted to save my money to go away. But I think the real excuse was, I didn’t want to say goodbye…the weeks leading up to leaving, I didn’t spend any time at home. I would go to work. I would go and hang out with my friends. I would pretend I was busy, but I knew eventually I had to say goodbye and go, I had to go and do it. But I had never been away from them.

So I was spending a lot of time at work. I was spending a lot of time with my friends and not as much time at home, eventually I knew I had to, I had to say goodbye to my family and leave. I was getting cold feet about going. I was second guessing whether, I was thinking, maybe the university made a mistake. Maybe they didn’t really send me an offer. I’ll just double check. That sort of thing. I was making excuses for myself. At that time I had a brand new niece. I had a niece and my sister made me her godmother. And she’s the…and it was just a time where I just felt like I wanted to be with my family. Anyway, it was O-week, Orientation week at the university and I had to leave, and I had to say goodbye to everyone.

They threw me a farewell barbecue, which is cute. My friends were there. My family were there. They were very proud. So we left. We’d never been to Ballarat before. We didn’t know what to expect. We had no idea where we were going and bless my mum. She had to drive us to Ballarat, but she doesn’t like long distance driving. And so on our way to Ballarat, we stopped that many times. But luckily we did stop that many times because we were lost. We didn’t know where we were going. So it was good we were taking our time. And so we arrive in Ballarat and it’s beautiful. I loved it. We checked in and we did all that stuff.

I think it’s something that everybody experiences, is leaving the family.

Very hard. I’m the first one to leave. I was the first one to leave. This was in 2013 I left home, and saying goodbye to my family was very hard. Never left them before. And it was different. I think that’s it. It was just hard. It was hard to leave them. It was hard to leave my family. It was very lonely. Very lonely.

University Years

There was a lot of times where I wanted to quit. Not only at that point, but along the tracks, I really wanted to quit. I couldn’t stand being away. I wanted to be with my family, that’s it. But every time after that, I thought to myself if I had gotten past that point, I could get past anything.

And so I was like, okay, it doesn’t seem so bad. I really want to quit right now. I was, “I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. Am I motivated?” And I was, “Yes, you are. Yes, you are. You want this, you want this badder than anybody else in the world wants this. This is for you. This is your journey. This is your journey. Complete it, complete your journey”. And I thought, if I could get past that saying goodbye, I could get through anything, because that last hug that I had, and I did not want to let go. I couldn’t, it was just, I wanted to quit there and then, and come home. I was, my brother had taken my bags inside. And I was like, “No, bring my bags back, put it back in the car”. So, that was a sad day. But I think that day put a lot of things into perspective for me, I think. Oh gosh, it put a lot of things into perspective for me that day.

I was so out of my comfort zone. I was feeling so alone and anxious, and I wanted to quit. And I thought to myself I can’t do that. I can’t quit. I was challenged. By far, it was my biggest challenge yet. And I thought, ‘Oh, no your biggest challenge was being in and out of school and going to a different school than to your siblings, your challenge was the stereotypes that you overcame in high school.’ I thought those were the challenges, but this was a huge, different challenge in leaving my family. And I thought, ‘No, I’m going to quit.’ And then I said, “No, I’m not going to quit. I’m going to do it.”

And it put into perspective the sacrifices that needed to happen in order for me to reach my full potential. And what I had to realise and what probably was one of my biggest motivations at that point was the sacrifices that not I had to make, the sacrifices that my parents had to make for me to be even able to make those sacrifices to be there. For me to be even at university on my first day, there were so many sacrifices that needed to be made much earlier that made that time available for me to make that opportunity available for me. And I sat there, I remember I sat there, and I was thinking, “Well, what am I sacrificing right now? I’m sacrificing being with my family. I’m sacrificing”, I had missed my goddaughter’s first birthday. And that, it was so hard. It’s my first niece. It’s our first grandchild. And I missed it. I missed it. I said, “What am I sacrificing? I’m sacrificing being with my family. I’m sacrificing milestones being away.”

And they had actually saved the birthday so that I could be there. And so I missed the actual birthday, but I didn’t miss the celebration. And that was a positive to look forward to. But I had to look at the sacrifices and I had to sort of weigh them up. I sort of thought, ‘Well, what are the sacrifices that were made before I got to this point. My parents came from Tonga. That was a sacrifice. They left their family all the way in a different country. I left my family six hours away in the same country. They made the sacrifice to come here.’ There was limited communication. They didn’t have Skype back then, or mobiles and things like that to stay in contact with their parents. They’d gone decades without seeing their parents, their siblings. Facebook wasn’t even available to them back then.

The sacrifices they made to come here and not speak fluent English, the sacrifice that they made, doing jobs that paid wages that were minimum, below minimum, the sacrifices that they made to work jobs that were physically demanding in the heat, in the cold. They harvest the grapes in the heat, and they prune the vines in the winter, in the cold, in the rain. There were a lot of sacrifices that were made for a long period of time for me to be able to go to university for four years, at four years and I’ve got school holidays. I can go back and see my family, but it put that into perspective for me in that moment saying goodbye. It had to be done. And I’m grateful for that. Very grateful for that, grateful for the journey, grateful for my parents and my siblings, because they looked after my parents while I was away.

I had video called them and they had jokingly said to me, “Oh, ‘Akesa, the house is so quiet without you. It’s so good”. You know, they’re like, “Oh, nobody’s arguing in the house. Nobody’s blah, blah, blah. We’re not…we’re so calm without you”. And then jokingly say that to cheer me up. And it was just, I know they miss me. Don’t worry. I know they miss me. But it was, it was hard.

And I would come home on the holidays and being away from home, you sort of adapt to the lifestyle that you’re living in. So when I was in Ballarat, I was adapting to that lifestyle. I was adapting to living independently. I was adapting to living in that setting, in that surrounding with certain people. And obviously my demeanour sort of changed, the way I spoke, maybe the way I dressed, the way that I…I’d been gone for semesters at a time. I come back and it’s so exciting to come back and see everybody. And it’s so exciting to see what everyone’s been up to. And everyone’s excited to see what I’ve been up to and then I would come home, and they would be like, “‘Akesa, oh, you’re so fie palangi.” Or, you know, “You’re so, you’re changes, you’re fie palangi, you’re like blah blah blah”. Basically they were saying, you’re trying to be Anglo. You’re trying to speak like an Anglo, like an Anglo-Saxon, you’re trying to speak like a…you’re trying to live like an Anglo-Saxon, like a European, like a White person. And I was like, “Well, that’s how we’re living over there. It’s no different here. It’s English. We’re speaking in English. That’s it.” And they’d make fun of me and the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the music that I was listening to at that point. It was a bit weird, but I remember every single time that I came home was the repeat of the same thing. I would get home and I’d be so excited to see everyone, but then immediately it would be like, “Oh, I’m home,” but then it was like, “I’m going to have to leave soon and I’m going to have to say goodbye all over again,” and I was like, “Oh!”

I remember every time I left to go back, they would stand outside, and they’d wave at my car and they’d be like, “Bye safe travels,” whatever. My siblings would come into the house, but not my mum. She would stand outside, and she’d wave, and she’d stand in the driveway. And so I’d drive up the road and then I’d have to turn onto the highway to go back to Ballarat. And every time I look in the rear-view mirror, she’d be there from all the way until I was completely out of sight, she would stand there. I was like, “Oh,” and it’d just get me, the goodbyes. I think that was part of the reason why I always said I would come home.

I would go and I would get my qualifications, but I would come home. I will help my people. I will help my community. I will do it! So it’s the way I did it. I think there was one particular subject that I was not great at, was not my forte, but it was a prerequisite. I had to do it to pass the course and I failed it. I remember my first…I failed, and I was so embarrassed, and I had to call. I had called my mum and I’d said, “Oh, I failed.” It was hard. I knew it cost a lot of money to do a course and all these emotions of not being good enough had come back. And it wasn’t even about the course anymore. It was about my support system.

It was about who was supporting me. I knew my mum was supporting me and then I felt like I let her down. But just like how she used to drag me back to the principal’s office to apologise and go back to school, she did the exact same thing. She said, “It’s okay. You can pick it up next semester. It’s not the end of the world. It’s only one.” And that really just reignited my resilience again to get it done.

Anyway, I failed my class, and she took me back to school. She didn’t take me back to school, it was just like how she took me back to school. And I did that.

And I think being aware of my support system was a huge thing for me. I remember, sometimes if I didn’t do well in a subject, or whatever it was, there were times where I would, on purpose, not call home or I would ignore phone calls coming from home because it would make me so emotional. If my mum called me, I would be crying the whole time. I wouldn’t even focus. That’s how connected I was to home. I wanted to be home. I wanted to make home proud. That was my motivation.

Graduating University and Turning 21

I went through university, and I graduated, and it was a very proud moment for me to be graduating, not only for my family, but for my community, someone from a regional town. Not only somebody from a regional town, but a woman, a girl from a regional town and a Pasifika woman from a regional town, and a second generation Australian from a regional town, from the low socioeconomic status. That was me. And I know I had been labelled in the past, but this was the label that I was making for myself. This was who I was. This is what I was going to achieve. This is who I will be and who I want to be remembered as: that role model. And so I graduated.

I remember going in to get fitted for my gown before we went into the theatre for our graduation. I sat down and I had a royal blue gown on, and I had my Tongan attire on and I was feeling very proud and patriotic and my parents were so proud, and my siblings. I’d finally done it. I’d finally achieved it. And just like in Year 12, when I graduated Year 12 and did VCE, this was that moment again, I had proven so many people wrong with the stereotype. I’d done it. I was about to go and receive it. And so all of these emotions were…I can’t even explain it. But anyway, I went in to get fitted and I remember the lady that was doing our gown, she said to me, “Oh, I love your attire.” I had a kahoa on. I had some kafa pulu on, which is…I don’t know how to explain it but it’s a material that they use to make the necklaces and the ropes that they use to wrap our mats.

And I had some shells. I had some pule’oto’s. My ma, I remember how proud she was to put my traditional attire on. She was showcasing my culture on the stage, and she was very proud of it. She was so proud of it. I remember in the months leading up to it, she was on the phone and she’s organising from Tonga, “I need this made”, and the attire is handmade. She was so proud. I remember that. I sat down and she went to put my gown on and she goes, “I love the attire. I just saw a young man wearing the same attire as you.” And I said, “What? There’s another Tongan graduating with me? I’m pretty sure that I don’t know any other Tongan”, but I didn’t know that there was some students studying via correspondence, whatever it was. I was like, “Oh, how did I not know that there was another one here?”

Anyway, on stage his named gets called up and he walks across the stage and he’s in full Tongan attire all the way from head to toe, even with the sandals on, and I was so proud. Everybody was so proud. You could tell that there were other Tongans in the room because the chee hooing was on point when they say, “Oh, please save the clapping for the end.” But you know us, too proud. There is so much to be proud about watching us showcase that on the stage. I was so nervous walking on the stage. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous.” But they made us feel confident with the way that they presented us, the way they put us on a pedestal to showcase what we’ve achieved. That was graduation day, and I remember because I was 21 that year. And it came down to celebrations and we had a discussion about how we would celebrate these milestones. I remember sitting down and we had fakafamili, which is like a family meeting, with our parents and our siblings.

And my mum said, “Oh, we’re going to have this and we’re going to have that. And we’re going to have this and that, this and that. And we’re going to have these mats and those mats, and we’re going to have this many meals and this and that, and this and that.” She wanted to do that for my 21st. She also wanted to do that for my graduation. Those are two milestones in the one year. First was the 21st and I said, “Well, what’s the significance of a 21st birthday?” because we were looking at all these extravagant things because I turned 21, I turned a certain age. I said, “Well, what’s the significance? You can tell me all the significance of each mat. You can tell me all the significance of each thread on the kahoa, on the necklace or on the kafa, the rope for the mat. You can tell me the significance of each teunga or each puleoto. You can tell me, but tell me the significance of a 21st birthday in our culture.”

Basically, she said, “It’s your freedom. You’ve been talangofua,” which means you’ve been good to your parents. “You’ve completed your education. You’ve done X, Y and Z.” And I said, “Okay, I get it. It’s my freedom because I’m turning 21.” But I said, “Well, it sort of defeats the purpose if you put it that way because I was independent when I was 17.” I had left when I was 17. I had worked when I was 17. This was my mentality back then. I had my license as soon as I turned 18. I was independent when I was 17. Was that not my freedom? If we were going to spend this much money on a 21st birthday, all this time and all this effort and all these resources on a 21st birthday, what is the significance? Because the significance that we name as a 21st birthday, I had that when I was 17, it defeats the purpose of a 21st birthday.

I think it was just because what they do. That’s just what they do. When Tongan’s turn 21, they throw on a massive 21st birthday. But what is the significance of it? Is what I really wanted to understand, because whether or not I was…maybe if I didn’t go to uni, if I did nothing, if I had succumbed to the stereotypes and I’d just stayed home, would I get the same 21st birthday? What is the significance of it? I didn’t understand it, so I said to her, “There is no way.” And Tongans, especially myself from my own experience, they sometimes live to please the community. They want to showcase what they have, whatever it is. I wasn’t about that because, in my walk and in my journey, there are a lot of people who didn’t believe in me. There are a lot of people that didn’t believe in my family. There were a lot of people that didn’t support my family, didn’t support me or anything that I had worked towards in my 21 years of life.

In my experience, if you throw a celebration, people would just come. People would just show up uninvited. They would just show up. I wasn’t prepared because by then it was stuck in my mind how every dollar was earned, how everything that was sacrificed has created what we had available to us. I wasn’t prepared to have anybody willy nilly just take credit for my journey. If it’s my 21st birthday, I would have the people who meant the most to me, the people who mattered to me, celebrate that with me. With the resources that we have available to us, the people closest to me will be the people at my birthday. I couldn’t care less about having 500 people at my 21st birthday just for the sake of showcasing. I understand the Tongan culture in the way of celebrating things big, but sometimes they do it or they don’t do it within their means. And even if they do have the means to do it, it doesn’t mean you have to do it.

There are other things that you can use your resources for. And the same thing happened at my graduation. Everyone was to be invited. Everybody was to blah, blah, blah. And I said, “Well look, wouldn’t it be better if these resources…” The Tongans just wants to go above and beyond with everything, but they don’t…I feel like my 21st and my graduation, it needed to be small and intimate. I can tell you right now, at my graduation, when I walked into the room, I could look at every single table in that room and I could tell you what each individual has played a part in my journey, in my 21st birthday, in my graduation. That’s how I wanted it to be done. And I feel like that was it.

I was satisfied. I was content with who mattered to me. I love the Tongan tradition, I love the Tongan culture. I love the Tongan custom, but within your means, I feel was my point. I’m very grateful for everything, every small detail. I had made them so proud that they just did everything to the best of their abilities. I was so grateful for everything, big or small. It was just more than enough.


When I graduated university, I had landed my placement with Rugby Union as a game development officer. So I was going around Melbourne with the game development officer and working in schools and doing rugby clinics, working with kids and teaching them the fundamental skills of Rugby Union.

I knew nothing about rugby union because I’m a rugby league girl. But the fundamentals are similar, passing the ball, catching the ball, falling over, technique and tackling and whatnot. And so I started off there and then eventually, I run a youth program. I’d run a youth program for five years and I met a game development officer for rugby league. I made that connection and then did placement with the NRL in Sunraysia. And I was like, “Wow, how things work out!” I made that connection from my placement, it turned into an internship, from an internship it turned into…when I graduated after the internship, they gave me a casual position. And from that casual position, it turned into full-time in my community, using it as a vehicle.

Our first project was increasing social cohesion in the community and reducing sedentary behaviour. But that was it. In 2011, I had had the idea in my head that this was what I wanted. In 2017, it was happening. Then from there, I took a role with the local council. I was the Robinvale employment network support officer, so I was helping those that were experiencing some vulnerability to find work or to be upskilled to find work, working with the CALD community, working with some of the disengaged students of the school. Currently, I’m working for the […] as a community facilitator here in Robinvale.

So I’ve been very fortunate and grateful to be able to go and complete my studies and come back locally, and work locally and be able to be this role model for our people, for our students and for anyone in general. It’s what matters to me, that they reach their full potential, that they have the opportunity to do so. And most importantly, to have that support, to be able to do so, reach their full potential. Yes, that’s it.


Wow! That’s really great. Thanks so much for that. You covered so much in your story. I think you said you guys originally started in Sydney, what was the reason for you guys moving to Robinvale? What was the main reason for you guys moving there?


The main reason: my dad’s brother and sister both lived here in Robinvale, so he wanted to come back closer to his family, as well as the job opportunity as well, in the farming.

Role Models


And just thinking about your journey, you know how there’s always a few key people, and you’ve mentioned so beautifully about your mum and the impact she’s had on her life, but was there anybody else, or maybe people that you remember growing up that you always watched as you were growing up and going, “I’m really inspired by these people or that person?” Or a particular role model? Because, when I reflect on my own journey, I know there are a few key people that I can name on one hand that I know have helped shape my life. So can you think back to your life who some of those people or that person was for you?


Yeah. Definitely my parents. And even my brother, his work ethic is amazing. But growing up, I do have a cousin in Sydney who is successful, but not just successful in terms of monetary value, or whatnot. Just in ways of conducting himself or the things that he works for or his ambitions, or even his motivation. He just doesn’t settle for the minimum. He doesn’t settle for what he gets. He works hard for what he has. He works hard for his family. He is very family orientated. I don’t even know how to explain it. I do look up to him. And my uncle as well. He’s a faifekau, a minister, and just very family orientated and very strong work ethics. I could be that. I can be that.


You mentioned, I think it was when you were in high school, and you mentioned that there were some Tongan teachers at the time who were teaching particular subjects. I can’t remember whether you accessed it, but if you did, how valuable was it to you having access to these services?


Yeah, very valuable. To have those teachers there, not only as a support, but as a…I don’t know how to explain it. They were role models. They were…I don’t even know to explain it. They were breaking the stereotypes by even being teachers at that school. We had a liaison officer there. We had a chaplain there that was Tongan, and two teachers there that were Tongan. That was motivation to see them in those roles. So important to us to see that. So important for us to see that that’s possible.

They are teachers who are Tongan, but they weren’t born here. They were born in Tonga and then they accessed education, and they did the hard yards to get here and become teachers here, become qualified to become teachers here. That is so much harder than us and what’s available to us here. They obviously have a journey. They’ve got a story of their own to tell about how they went through all that.

And I think it takes me back to saying goodbye to my mum at university and weighing up what were the sacrifices that were made by my parents to get me to that point. And I was doing the easy stuff compared to what they were sacrificing. So for us to see those teachers in the positions that they were in is inspirational, because obviously they’d gone through a lot of barriers to be where they were and continue to be today. Yeah.

Parents Influence


So, recognising that your mum has played a really pivotal role in your life, why do you think she valued the education so much even though they, both your mum and dad, probably didn’t go as far as they would have liked in their own journeys?


Yeah. I haven’t put a lot of thought into that question, but…I think the sacrifices that she had made for us to be where we are, she doesn’t want to settle for anything less for us. She wanted to give us every opportunity that she could. She wanted us to strive as much as we could. She wanted to give us everything. I think that’s an ambition for every mother, to want their kids to succeed, or to see their kids reach their full potential. Both my parents.

I don’t know what it is about Tongan men, but they don’t like to show much emotion. They’re men of few words when it comes to this sort of topic, but they don’t lack support. I think that was it, the sacrifices and, I think, the reality of where they came from compared to what they could give us, was a huge reason why she valued education. Both of my parents valued education. The opportunities that they could provide for us here, and the opportunities that they knew would be available to us once we became educated, they really wanted that for us.


And so, can you talk me through what’s your relationship like with your dad? What’s it like from a communication point? You just mentioned there, communication isn’t always the strongest point for our Tongan fathers. So what was your relationship like with your dad?


Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure that comes from my dad, from a very young age there was a standard that was over my head. I carry the name of my grandmother And so, there was always an expectation of me to be great. And so, the relationship was very tough.

I don’t like to disappoint, or I don’t like to be challenged because I’m very stubborn. And so the expectation was high, but very, very supportive. Like I said, he’s a man of few words. But when he did speak, he spoke wisely about valuing education, about work ethic, about making sacrifices and about making decisions about being grateful, about being wasteful. Yeah.

Because I like to be outside a lot. When I was getting suspended, I was spending time at work with either my mum or my dad. He taught me a lot of things. I wanted to go out and help him fix the cars, and so I was changing light bulbs. When I went to university, I knew how to maintain my own car. Change a tire, change the oil, change a light bulb, change whatever, because I’d spent so much time with him.

So, a man of few words, but very supportive and values education and values work ethic a lot. Especially coming from where they came from in Tonga and the opportunities that are available now. So, yeah.

Cultural Values and Language


Switching gears now, you know how we talk about the value of education that sort of thing. On the other side of that in terms of our cultural values, what part of our cultural values do you think that your parents instilled in you that have helped shape you? What are some key Tongan values that you think really help you to be the person that you are today?


The one that just jumps out and I think is a pivotal one, a key one, would be faka’apa’apa, would be respect. Respect for, not only the people, respect for our elders, but respect for ourselves, respect for the opportunities that we have. Respect, in general, was everything. Especially faka’apa’apa in our culture, especially within our family. There is a hierarchy in the Tongan culture. And I think that’s one that is a pivotal key in the way that we conduct ourselves in everyday life, in the work environment, in our family environments and individually as well. I think that that would be the key one. Yeah.


And based on what you understand about the Tongan culture and Tongan history, in general, because we do want to acknowledge our second gen. Some of them struggle with language, and some of them struggle with not understanding the language at all, or the culture. So, can you just touch on how that experience has been for you, in terms of how active you are within practicing your Tongan culture and speaking, practicing some of the protocols and things like that?


Yeah, for sure. As I mentioned, when we first went to Tonga, it was a big eye-opener for us. We didn’t speak any Tongan when we went to Tonga. We can understand Tongan fluently, but speaking it is a different thing. And so, the Tongan culture when we went to Tonga, it was so different, especially on a Sunday. No shops are open on a Sunday. You’re not allowed to buy anything from a shop on a Sunday. You’re not allowed to be loud on a Sunday. It’s a quiet day. It’s sacred, the Sabbath.

And we didn’t understand that then because in Australia, even though we know that Sunday is the Sabbath, we’re still allowed to go to the shop. And we’re still allowed to watch TV, and we’re still allowed to go outside or whatever it is and hang out. Hang out but hang out quietly. What else? I also mentioned that we have grown up in an Anglo-Saxon church, an English-speaking church, our services are predominantly in English.

A Tongan custom or a Tongan tradition is Faka-Mē, which is White Sunday. And in White Sunday, pretty much the children run the church service for that Sunday, in the month of May. Some churches do that in the first week of May, some do it in the last week of May. And if we were to go to another denomination that participated in Faka-Mē, in White Sunday, they would do the whole service in fluent Tongan.

No paper, they would sing their choruses and their items, they would perform them all fluently in Tongan. For me, myself, in our congregation, we did it in English. We had some items that we did in Tongan, but we did it in English. Some of us read with paper, it wasn’t as strict, but that was another thing.

Advice for Pasifika Youth


So, just going back now to your later school journey, so your high school years, and then obviously your transition to uni. Recognising now some of your struggles, but also some really amazing achievements, what are some things that you would recommend to the youth coming through now, how to help them to really nurture whatever dreams they have? What are some things they should do to help with their learning? What are some tips that you can share based on your own experience for the next generation coming through?


Yeah. I like the word you used, I like the word nurture, for them to nurture what their passion is. The passion might be very small right now, but you feed it and it becomes its full potential. Surround yourself by supportive people. Really, I’m a big believer in self-affirmation in surrounding yourself with that support. Not only being reliant on your support system, but yourself being your biggest support system.

I know it’s very hard, especially in a pandemic like this, to keep your resilience up, or to have ambition because there’s so much uncertainty. But surround yourself with those people or read the books that are going to encourage you, listen to the podcast, listen to audio books, don’t be afraid to step out. I was never a strong reader, it took me a long time to even wear my glasses.

In high school, I was told that I have to wear glasses, I said, “No way. I’m already an outcast as it is. I’m not going to wear glasses. People will…” But these are things that we need to do for ourselves to develop, personal development. Do it, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and reach your full potential, worrying about what other people are going to think about you. It is your dream. It is your passion. It is your journey. Go for it.

Find your support system. It might be your mum, but you don’t speak to your mum often enough maybe about these things. Start the conversations. Maybe you be the person to start the conversation if you think it’s worth talking about, if you think it’s something you’re passionate about. Talk to your friends about it. It might be a small thing right now, but surround yourself with the right people you’ll go very far.


I think it just reminded me of a point that you made earlier about how you really just pushed through. There were many moments where you came across people that would constantly downplay why you were trying to do what you were trying to do, or they would be negative in just some of their comments. Why do you think there’s this negative perception of wanting to achieve? Why do you think that exists within the town that you grew up in?


Yeah, it’s a tough question that one. I don’t know why people do that. I do not. I cannot understand why people do that. But in saying that, it comes down to intergenerational disadvantage, I think. That mentality is passed on by people. You don’t just grow up and be somebody who doesn’t value education. You don’t just grow up and be somebody who doesn’t believe in aspirations.

It’s something that’s passed down, not obviously, but sometimes that’s it. They haven’t experienced that support before, or they haven’t experienced that success before, or they’re feeling like they’re not worthy and they just spread that. I think that’s it. It’s intergenerational.



We’re almost at the end, so I just want to ask you one other question. What does success look like to you? So it can be in the form of health, education, whether that’s financial, whether that’s…how would you define success?


A huge part of success for me is being happy with what you’re doing, is being content with what you’re doing. You set your goals and you achieve them, and being happy with it. Moving, not just being static, being proactive, that is being successful. For me, I said that my dream job was the NRL, was to be the game development officer in Sunraysia. I was a placement student there as a game development officer. I was an internship student there, and I was a full-time employee there.

And I could have said that “That’s my success, I’m done, that’s it. I went and I completed my studies and I’ve lived my dream job, that’s it,” but it’s not. Success is being able to achieve a goal and then being able to create another goal and just keep moving. Keep moving and being happy with it. Being happy with where you’re moving and being content with the decisions that you’re making. That is success to me. A successful life is a happy, full life, full of experiences.

And three’s a quote, but I don’t want to say it because I might say it wrong. But I could find it for you, actually. I’ve got it written down. I’ll find it for you. It’s a quote by Jim Rohn and it says, “Life is not just the parting of time, life is a collection of experiences and their intensity.” And I think that is what success is, is the experiences, and the sense of fulfillment and happiness in what you’re doing. I think that’s a very important…

I know a lot of people will succumb to the pressure and a lot of people will succumb to the stereotypes and they settle. Don’t settle. If you are inspired, do it, go for it. You won’t fail, you will only learn. That is success. If you’re happy and you’re ambitious, that is success.

Just go for it. Everything that I’ve said in this, I know you’re going to choose the best seven minutes or whatever it is. I hope that it inspires our people. And not even only our young people, but anybody who needs inspiration right now. Regardless of your age, it’s never too late. Go for it. Go and do that thing that you thought you couldn’t do. It’s not too late.

If you’ve got that fire reigniting in yourself right now saying, “I should’ve done that,” go and do it right now. Jump on your phone, or your computer or whatever it is, and research the opportunity and see how you can get involved. Ask the questions, ring a friend, ask somebody. Be inspired. Do it, don’t leave it. Just do it.

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