English Teacher, Writer, Project Manager, & President of the Victorian Kiribati Association
Name: Cassandra (Cass)
Age at interview: 31 years
Occupation: English Teacher, Writer, Project Manager, President of the Victorian Kiribati Association
Ethnicity: I-Kiribati and Australian
Country of birth: Australia
In this video
|0:07:12||Family Expectations and Cultural Values|
|0:23:33||Beginning of Career|
|0:28:02||Managing Study and Work|
|0:35:13||Starting a Business|
|0:45:28||Tutoring Pasifika Students|
|0:52:17||Family Relationships, Influence, and Expectations|
|0:57:25||Family Attitudes to Education|
|1:05:13||Community Involvement and Cultural Identity|
|1:12:49||Pasifika Peers at School and University|
|1:16:27||Support for Pasifika Youth at School|
|1:26:45||Parent’s Expectations of Education|
|1:31:00||Advice for Pasifika Youth|
|1:36:52||Pasifika Cultural Strengths|
- Early Years
- Family Expectations and Cultural Values
- High School
- Beginning of Career
- Postgraduate Degree
- Managing Study and Work
- Starting a Business
- Tutoring Pasifika Students
- Family Relationships, Influence, and Expectations
- Family Attitudes to Education
- Parent’s Perspectives
- Community Involvement and Cultural Identity
- Pasifika Peers at School and University
- Support for Pasifika Youth at School
- Parent’s Expectations of Education
- Advice for Pasifika Youth
- Pasifika Cultural Strengths
- Final Comments
- Support during primary and high school
- Experiences of post-secondary education and training
- Developing Careers
- Experiences of Work
- Reflections and advice to young Pacific People
So education to me is something really, really important. I think my educational journey really started when I was, obviously when I was a young child. I was really eager to learn. I wanted to go to school before I was even old enough to go to school. I used to pack my lunches with my older brother and pretend that I was going, but I wasn’t. I was still a couple years to go.
So looking back on, even just in my childhood years, I could really see, I guess, that interest and that passion that I had, that I currently have up until, obviously now presently, and where it kind of journeys backwards, back to my early years. I saw education as an outlet and a gateway for me to I guess, be kind of free and financially free, as well as being able to have the freedom to pursue anything that I wanted to do. And I saw it as a way that I could I guess, challenge my inner thoughts and my own understandings about particular areas of interest and be able to break them down. And it was something that I felt that I was, that was kind of natural to me. And it also was a safe space for me as well.
Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was about eight years old and that really affected me, coming from a divorced family. So we separated from my older brother and my dad and my sister and I lived with my mum, who’s I-Kiribati, and she raised us in the Pacific Island way. She remarried to a Tongan later on, and I think I was really brought up in that Pasifika environment and upbringing. There wasn’t really any presence up until that point of the Australian way of living, so to speak. My mum really did push, I guess, Islander cultural values upon us. And I think that’s where I get a lot of my, I guess, characteristics from.
So that’s basically, that was I guess the turning point for me to really look for an outlet. And I used school and learning and the library as a safe space to be where I felt safe, and I felt like I could understand and explore, and I guess feel connected with whatever I was learning. I guess, I felt a really strong sense of understanding and just knowingness and confidence in what I was learning. And I was being able to learn it myself and to teach myself and to be able to receive the marks that I received.
It gave me that sense of something that I was good at. And I could feel that I could grow upon this and actually do it well. And it was an area that I felt that I could go into and just, sorry, that I could go into and know that I was going to do well from a very early age. The funny thing is though, I sound…it sounds like I’m clever and intelligent, but I did struggle with what I was learning, but I felt that I was really eager to do it. So I had the attitude of wanting to do well, even though I may have forgotten some of the fundamentals, especially in English, I felt that I probably wasn’t really listening when I was in primary school because of the things that were going on, on a personal level within my family, especially with my parents and obviously the breakup in the family.
So I kind of lacked that area of understanding and then it didn’t really catch up until later on. And the only way that I could understand and learn was if I was around other people who had already gone through it, so older children, so older students who were in other year levels above me and they were able to reexplain it to me. And I was able to understand it in a way that I guess the teachers couldn’t explain it because it was really, learning in an emotional way, you kind of had to learn by conversations and that’s not something that they teach in school.
We didn’t really have those relationships, where we could really break down and say, look, I’ve got these issues and things like that. So because of the way that I grew up and the way that I, how I went about things, that’s kind of led me to wanting to teach English to students who may have issues or just having a misunderstanding of what they’re being taught in school because of the delivery of how it gets done. And I feel that from my personal experiences of the things that I went through personally, I know how to explain it in a way that they would understand it.
And that’s only through the experiences that I’ve gone through and that’s by just having a conversation with the students, making them feel comfortable. A lot of the students that I do teach now are from a Pacific Islander descent and they’re the kinds of students that I feel more comfortable in teaching as well, because I feel like we relate on so many levels.
So I guess with the journey, I also, when I finished high school, I had so much confidence to go to university.
I just knew that that was the way that I wanted to get out because I grew up in the Western suburbs of Melbourne. And I guess growing up, there was a lot of people around me, especially my family that didn’t…that I wasn’t really inspired by. So I grew up with people that didn’t really have an, maybe have a university qualification or university education. So I didn’t really know anyone personally around me when I was growing up, especially when I was finishing high school, but I always knew that, that would have been, I guess, my outlet or the way that I could get out to be able to change my life. I saw things when I was really young, even when I was 17 and 18, that I thought that I could, I guess I could do even better. And I knew that it was through education that I could actually really elevate the level, the standard of living. Even, just being able to think more broadly, be able to think more greater. Sometimes some parents may think, oh, as long as you get a job, then that’s okay. I just didn’t want to settle for less or just settle for the standard. I really had a high standard of what I wanted to pursue even at that age.
And I knew that once I got through it, I would be okay, regardless if I didn’t find a job straight away, I just knew it was something that was almost like a safety blanket. I felt like my first degree, my bachelor’s degree was my safety blanket. It was a safety net for me, regardless of what happened to me. I knew that I had that on me to be able to protect me for whatever I wanted to do or pursue later on. Because when you’re at 18 years old, it’s really hard to have your whole life mapped out especially, if you don’t receive counselling, especially if your parents aren’t aware of your strengths.
Family Expectations and Cultural Values
My parents weren’t really…they didn’t understand my strengths that I may have had at the time. They kind of just expected, yep, she’s okay and in school, as long as she’s okay, then that’s okay. And she needs to worry about her standard and what she can do. Sometimes my parents would miss parent-teacher interviews and they would miss extracurricular school activities. My mum never knew about tutoring. She never knew about other things that you could do to progress my learning, which I found really interesting because there were so many people around me in different cultures that were getting it.
Sorry, what I was saying was sometimes it was really hard for, I guess my mum to really understand how much I cared about it. So me spending long hours at the library after school, I used to get in trouble. She used to think that I was…I had a boyfriend or, I was doing something that I shouldn’t have been doing, but I was at the library because my parents didn’t have an internet connection or didn’t invest in technology. So I would be using the internet at the library and using the computers there.
And I would stay until six o’clock and then catch the last bus home and then I’d get in trouble because dinner wasn’t ready. I think that’s something in our culture, in the I-Kiribati culture where I guess the oldest daughter has the responsibility to cook and kind of run the family once they’re at a particular age when they can actually do it. So, that was something that was taught to me.
I didn’t hate it. My goal was just to multitask and to make sure I could do it and leave enough time to be able to study and do all my assignments and all the assessments and things that I had to study for in school. So I am grateful regardless of how it sounds with how my mum forced me to do all these things, she did it out of love. She wanted to teach me what she knew. What she knew was that I need to raise my daughter to be a good wife and to know how to cook and clean and to be well-respected against…within the family. So then they knew that I could do all these things. So that was kind of like, if you achieved that, then you raised your daughter very well.
But the other side that was missing was probably the academia side, the education side. So even working, I started working at 15 years old and I used to work night shifts every weekend at McDonald’s. And that was kind of just to help me get some money so then I could obviously, buy things that I liked and give money back to my parents if they needed it. This is quite common, especially in my family that we did this. And we would give obviously a small portion to our parents just to say, thank you for raising us and looking after us, this is $40 or whatever, that’s for you. And the rest would be for us.
But later on, I learned that my school fees weren’t getting paid. I think that was just probably due to the mismanagement of, I guess my parents being able to allocate money to the appropriate places, which would have been the right thing to do by any parent is to make sure that you can pay for school fees. And I went to a private girls’ Catholic school. I went to a private girls’ Catholic school and, it was only a couple of thousand dollars a year, which I don’t think is a lot in the scheme of things. But back then, it probably was a bit too much for maybe my parents to pay for.
So I ended up obviously going on a payment plan with the school and I ended up finishing paying off my school fees when I was 21. So well after I finished high school, but that was something that I did and I organised and arranged with the principals and things like that, because they said, if you don’t pay your school fees, you won’t be able to complete and stay. And I wanted to stay, and I wanted to graduate there. So, that was something that I did.
And I was really proud of myself because I was able to really, at a young age, allocate and pay for my school fees, even though, maybe parents should pay for it or maybe they shouldn’t, maybe my mum was trying to teach me something, but I was really grateful that I did it and, I was able to pay it off. I hope that when I have, with my son that I have now, we’re already saving for his school fees and he’s only 14 months. We want him to go obviously to a good school. So the perspective has definitely changed in the last generation obviously.
This is not to say that all parents are like this, this was just something that happened to me. And I think that’s what really spurred me on to really try hard, especially through university and just obviously to kind of push myself beyond what I thought I could do. And I always felt like I was always in a challenging environment, even, studying for exams, doing things, everything was all basically scheduled in because I still had to play the role of what my mum wanted me to be, which was to be a stay-at-home Islander lady or woman.
And also, I had my own personal goals, which was to go to university, finish that, obviously join the workforce, get a professional job and launch my career. In my early 20s, that was my goal. So I did both. I wanted to make sure that mum viewed me as someone that could live up to what she wanted me to be. But I also wanted to live up what I knew at the time was the right thing to do. And I understood that my mum didn’t understand that, but I also respected her and made sure that it didn’t compromise any kind of level of disrespect in any way, because my mum, she obviously brought me into this world where we’re brought up to respect them regardless of what they do.
And I guess that’s the whole cultural, I guess, that cultural learning that we get taught. I think a lot of Pacific Islanders would agree or understand where I’m coming from. It kind of sounds a bit, it sounds intense, but it’s not because there’s so many skills and learnings that I’ve received out of it that is really benefiting me now. I think the act of humility has…is one of the best things that I guess any, is probably one of the best skills that my mum had…sorry.
I think humility is one of the best characteristics that my mum has taught me because of that. I’m okay to cook and clean and do all these things even with my husband now, as opposed to trying to be all academic and focused on my working career, because sometimes you can compromise both. Whereas, I think my mum has taught me that at such a young age. So I don’t want to compromise my role of being a wife, my role of being a mother, that’s always a priority and then work comes next. And that’s sometimes that can be hard, especially when you’re really eager to obviously, go ahead and you’ve got a five-year plan with your business and you’ve got all these things that you want to do.
You spoke a bit about at primary school and how you looked to older children to help you grasp some of the things that you weren’t getting at school, but when you were at high school, what was that like and that particular school that you’re at, being a private girls school in terms of, I guess, the academic culture of that school and how you felt you fitted in? And then I’m interested to know about how you transitioned from there to university. So maybe if you could just talk a bit about high school experiences first.
So with high school, I kind of, I looked up to, I guess the older year levels we had, I guess kind of like a buddy system. We had a lot of mentorship from the older, senior level students that would kind of talk to us. And there were some Pacific Islanders who were at my school that I felt like I could relate to. And I felt like that really did help me. I think it also came down to some of the teachers that I had. I had some really good teachers who knew about some of the personal things that I was going through with my family and obviously with my parents and things and knew that I was paying for my school fees. So they were a bit more, I guess, flexible and a bit more sensitive to my situation and to, I guess my youngest sister.
I actually do have a younger sister who was two years younger than me, who we all went to school. We went to school together. I felt like I had to be someone that she could look up to. So I kind of wanted to pave a way for her to see someone that regardless of all the adversity that we were facing internally through our homes and through the family things that were happening, I wanted my sister to kind of look up to me to say that she…that we can do this. And there are ways and outlets that we can get through it.
My older brother, who’s three years older than me, he went to university first. So he really did set the benchmark for us regardless of what we were going through as siblings. So he really did set the benchmark for me to continue on in that as well. And we did get a lot of counselling in school as well from the teachers who would really push university as the way after high school.
So I felt like being around particular teachers and friends and students that I was around at the time, my circle of influence, we all had that goal to go to university. So I really do believe it was by luck that I had a really good group of friends who were all study partners. I may have just fallen into the right group. I could see if I was in a different group of friends, maybe my outlook or my future may have been a bit different, but I do believe that I guess with a little bit of common sense and just knowingness of, who you should be friends with, who was actually going to benefit you really did help play a role.
And that’s something that I kind of knew back then as a teenager, not to say that I was the perfect teenager. I did get up to mischief here and there sometimes, but I did try my best to stay in school, finish it regardless of whatever was happening, make sure that I was doing what I could with the limited resources and skills that I had. And I think having friends who were going through similar things as well, we kind of comforted each other.
I had some friends who, obviously didn’t…came from families that didn’t have both mother and father there. And I think that kind of helped us because we all kind of worked together to motivate each other. I guess that’s that sense of just standing on your own, just trying to encourage yourself when you don’t really have anyone around you to encourage and going home and that whole environment, it was like a motivator for me. I did not want to be a part of it. I didn’t want to be a part of that lifestyle of living pay check to pay check, family drama, all that kind of…all those kinds of experiences that toppled onto the top of each other.
It was a direct motivator to not be like that. So I really followed the principle of the, not what to do. I did not want to be a part of that. And I wanted to try everything that I could, that I, in my power at the time to try and go the opposite direction of the environment that I was growing up in. So when I saw it, I think the sense of knowing what was right and that sense of knowing what was the right thing to do was probably taught to me when I was more younger.
I think my father, my Australian dad, he really did teach us that as well. And I think that’s where we learned those values of doing the right thing, being around the right people and that really did play a big role.
And so I guess as you were approaching the end of high school, and you knew that you wanted to go to uni, did you have a clear sense of what you wanted to study or where you wanted to go to uni or what job you might want to do in the future?
So I didn’t have a clear goal. I didn’t have a clear title. So when you say clear title, as in I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a nurse, that kind of a thing, I didn’t have that. All I knew is to follow my interests. So I had interests in politics, international development, community development, working with people at the time. And that’s probably why my first degree was a Bachelor of Arts. And I felt that regardless of what I did do within the degree, I knew that those skills could be transferable, or I was going to learn something out of it. It was going to help me grow.
The skills that you do learn in a bachelor’s degree, you can’t learn anywhere else in the workforce. I believe that these are special skills that you can only learn, well, I think it’s, I’m really talking from my perspective here, but they’re skills that you can only learn through being resilient, seeing the end result, being able to complete something even though you’re not sure where it’s going to lead you, but you do have that confidence that it’s going to lead you somewhere better than where you are.
So, that was my main driver. And I think having a counsellor at university at the time really helped making sure that I was finishing all my subjects and, smashing out the semesters and, having a goal when I wanted to graduate, doing things. Sometimes I took extra subjects so I could graduate in a particular period of time. And I think that’s what really drove me in doing it any way.
When I did finish my bachelor’s degree, I did have that sense of wanting to help people, but because I wasn’t classified as a nurse or someone that could help someone in that way, I really felt that need to teach. So I do think back whether if I wanted to be a teacher back then, I still don’t know if I wanted to be a teacher per se, in schools. I think I wanted to be a teacher to people that weren’t in schools or were in a different environment outside of the school. So teaching that sort of way.
So people might say that, that might be a social worker role or something, but I felt like there was something else more than just a social worker kind of role. I felt that with the skills that I had, I had that confidence in me that I, regardless of what my title was after I finished my bachelor’s degree, I knew that I could still pursue whatever I felt that I could do, which was to go and help people and help speak to parents, bring life into them, motivate them, let them know that there is this different way of living and there’s a different mindset to have.
So whether that’s called a life coach or something, I didn’t know what it was at the time when I finished my bachelor’s degree, but I knew that I had a skill that I could bring to people. And I did use it through teaching coincidentally, even though I didn’t do a teacher’s degree per se. And I think that’s what gave me the ideas and the ability just to think freely and have that, I guess, that entrepreneurial, innovative mindset to kind of create and do things outside of what a structured teacher program or teachers journey map would have looked like. And I feel like that’s where it’s kind of led me today.
Beginning of Career
So after I finished my bachelor’s degree, I went, I wanted to…I started to apply for international development programs. I felt like I wanted to work overseas, have that experience, that international experience. So I went and did six months of teaching over in Nepal overseas. So I went on a voluntary program with an NGO, a nongovernmental organisation at the time. And I was put on placement in a rural location where I would teach schools, I would teach the teachers and obviously have that English teaching experience as a second language to these schools in rural parts of Nepal.
And that’s what I did for six months. And from there, that’s what spurred me to really go back to university because I could feel that we’re so lucky to have education as a really important tool or an important way of life and living here in Australia. And when you’re overseas, you really do see it because I…there’s children that I was teaching, they…some of them were so motivated, so smart, so intelligent, but I knew that they, it was going to be difficult for them to even be able to get into high school or even get into university, let alone get into an international university or something.
And I just felt like I was so blessed to even just be Australian, to be able to put my hand up, go and do a degree, the government will pay for it, I can pay for it later. That whole kind of concept really was drilled into me when I was there. And that’s what spurred me to go back to university when I completed that placement to enrol and actually do a Masters.
I had this strong sense of motivation that I just had to go back and do a Masters. I wanted to do a PhD. I just wanted to stay in academia and research and learning. I just felt like the, I guess the area of learning was something that I was fascinated by the ability to learn anything that you wanted. And I felt that I learned those skills through my bachelor’s. I guess in a Bachelor of Arts, you get to do a broad range of topics, especially when they allow you to do electives. And I just loved the way that when you’re given tools, when you’re given the right learning resources, you can learn it and you can understand it. And that’s powerful. And I felt the power in learning and understanding.
And I felt that I was able to…it was something that I was good at. I was good at receiving the knowledge. I loved just reading up on things for hours and hours and hours, and then writing my assignments. And I just loved all that. So when I finished my placement, I was so excited to…I just had that re-boost of energy to go back and do a master’s degree because you really do have to be motivated to go back and do a Masters. I did my Masters, I enrolled for it when I was 23. Sorry, when I was 23 years old. I wish I waited to really do something that I liked, but I felt that at the time it was the next step that I wanted to take, and I was ready for it.
So I did do my Masters in International Relations. And from there I learned even greater skills of research. And I learned that whole, I guess international development of human rights, the unsolved world problems, where are the gaps and I felt that from my experiences in, I guess, reaching out and teaching and in, I guess bringing that motivation to communities and talking to them and letting them know that there’s things that they can do by changing your perspective, that’s what I really draw…kind of I felt like I was drawn to, and from that, I felt like that that was going to set me up for the next phase, which was to get to, I guess, working the…get into the workforce.
I felt that I needed to continue doing education to get somewhere, but all the while I was learning something along the way, and I guess, you kind of have this standard when you get to 24 years old, I need to be making X amount of money or something because it’s like, when are you going to start getting paid for all this hard work? So you kind of have to make the sacrifice of learning and doing your studies as opposed to making whatever, what all your friends are making…
Managing Study and Work
And so you were just working part time during that time?
So when I was doing it, I was working. I actually was working full time. So I did the majority of those online because master’s is majority online and I used to work night shifts
I don’t know if this happens to you, but when you look back on your life, you can really see the journey that you’ve been on and how everything is interconnected and how everything was meant to happen for a reason. And I feel that everything that I have done in my past was for a reason, and it has set me up to where I am now. And I feel that it’s almost like you’re not making sense of things at the time, or you don’t know how it’s going…you can’t make sense of the benefit, but you know it’s going to benefit.
And that was my mindset and mentality that I had through high school, through university, bachelor’s and through my master’s. I was like no, we can work and we can study at the same time, why can’t we? I’m a really strong advocate for time management. I believe that using your time in the best way possible, you can do multiple things. You don’t have to just be like the average person and just work, and then you need to leave work so then you can study or something like that. There’s an opportunity or there’s possibility to do both. And I think that’s the skill that I learnt from my mum when she taught me that you need to make sure you cook and clean, and then you do your homework. So I learnt these skills from when I was young, when I was eight, nine years old. I was like, okay, if I can cook dinner in 25 minutes, what can I make?
And that’s where the creativity, that’s where all these skills that make me who I am today really did start to grow and develop. And I’m so grateful that I have these skills now because I’m able to run my business. I’m also working full-time in corporate. I think what I do now is, I see it as it’s okay, but maybe in a couple of years’ time I will think, oh, I can’t believe I actually did all that. But there’s a lot of people that I know that are thinking, Cass, you’re crazy. You’re a full-time mum, stay at home. You work a Monday to Friday, 40-hour week job. Plus, you’re running your teaching business, you’re teaching 30/40 kids a week. Where do you have the time to do all these things?
And I believe that these things, or my ability to have the time in the day really does come from those childhood experiences that I was taught. That my mum didn’t realise that she was teaching me, but I was really developing and learning from, and obviously taking advantage of. And I’m just so…I’m really grateful that she’s taught me that. Like, Cass, make sure you do those basics, because to do that…even today, being able to work full-time, run a business as well full-time, plus being a mother and a wife, I think that’s probably one of the most challenging parts in my life that I’ve had to date, especially being a mother for the first time. But my mum’s taught me not to counter, sometimes we can take our careers as the main focus and we can be so focused on it, especially if you’re really career focused. I’m so into, where am I going to be in two years’ time? What does my resume look like?
I really do value all those things. And then to value that over being a mother, I want to make sure that I am a mother for my son. I want to be present with him. I want him to know that I’m there for him and I’m not just focused on my work and on my laptop all day. So even the skills of being able to manage both, making sure the house is in order, making sure my husband has a meal when he comes home from work, I value these things and they’re cultural things that my mum has taught me. She always taught me to make sure that you need to know your role as a wife, you need to know your role as a mother. So those things are the things that my mum has taught me. And I’m so grateful for it, because I’m happy. I know that my son’s happy, my husband’s happy, I’m happy. I’m able to do this work. So all these things are all interconnected in some way.
I entered the workforce after my master’s and I thought I was going to get the best job in the world and have an $80,000 pay check per year, because I was a master’s graduate, but it didn’t happen. But that didn’t deter me. I just felt like, let’s enter the workforce, let’s start at the bottom. And then some way along the journey, someone will notice me, or someone will see what I can offer. I think it was about…I think that was a challenging time because you do shift and think, you’ve done five years of study. When you do five years of study and then think you’re going to get a ground-breaking job, an executive role, I think there’s that mindset shift, where you got to think, okay, let’s be real for a second. I actually have no real quality experience in a particular area because I’ve been doing different jobs over the years. Now I’m finally landing into something, where am I going to go? Where can I start?
Did it deter me? No it didn’t. It really encouraged me just to be…I had to humble myself and really start from the bottom, and I was okay with that. I was okay just to start at the bottom. Starting off as an office coordinator in an admin role. And I felt like I needed to get a job just to make money. So at this point I wasn’t focusing on my passion, which is teaching and education yet. My focus was more just to get a full-time job, trying to make some money, but also learn skills along the way. So I started in obviously some admin roles for some corporate companies. And then obviously into this project manager role that I’m in now, that I’ve been for the last four and a half years. So that’s the timeframe from my master’s. The first couple of years were just obviously working in administration roles. And then obviously working now currently in more project management roles for global corporate organisations.
That’s what I do full-time now. But somewhere along the journey, a couple of years after I had finished my master’s, I started teaching, started doing tutoring. I started English tutoring as a part-time job. I don’t know if it was a part-time job or if it was a part-time passion that I wanted to still show focus in and make sure that I was still showing love and showing that passion that I did to help students, I just felt this urge and need to help students who may have been in a similar situation that I was in. Probably didn’t have anyone to look up to, probably came from a family that had issues and some trouble there. I knew that there were students out there that were similar to me, that probably needed someone to speak life into them, to remind them that they can do this. There is hope, there is opportunity. You need to finish high school. This is a fundamental foundation that you need, because the market’s so competitive now. It’s something that you’re going to need, even though all the signs are probably pointing for you to drop out.
Starting a Business
I felt this really strong sense of advocating for education, so I started doing that part-time on the weekends and after work. And then that developed within the first year into something that, when I was working for another business, another tutoring business, I just started to do it myself. I started to get inquiries, I was around I think 26/27, and I just started teaching people at home, organising. I was like $20 an hour for a student. And then over the years, it just became the normal. And through that, I was able to teach them real issues that mattered. So things that the world hadn’t solved. I was able to teach them the English curriculum that we are taught here in Victoria but apply it to something that they could relate to or understand. So when you teach English in high school now, you need to stick to a curriculum, you need to do it via text or a film.
They’re very strict with the guidelines and what they do per term. Whereas my method of teaching was more, let’s look at a problem that’s current, that they understand, talk about it, teach them the research skills, basically teach them how to self-teach themselves. Some of these skills were taught to them, or maybe they’re waiting for their teacher to explain these things to them. But I felt like, hey, these are skills that you actually need. You’re going to need this for the workforce, whether you complete school or not, you’re going to need these skills. So let’s learn them. So when I was teaching them English, I was teaching them life skills that they needed anyway. Plus giving them that motivation to stick it out. And also, I guess applying my own personal experiences of going, hey, I’ve been through that.
I know what it’s like to go to school with no food. I know what it’s like just to be hungry all the time and come home and there’s no food in the fridge. Because I know what it’s like, just stick it out. I feel like with what I went through, I was able to motivate them to stay in school. I wanted them to finish school. I still want them to finish school. I still want all the children that I do teach to finish school. I want them to go to high school. I want them to consider university, because I believe, I wholeheartedly believe in the value of education and just the skills that you learn. It’s just, I don’t think you can learn that in the workforce, because when you’re in university and obviously you both would understand this, you actually get to analyse and look at things outside of the box and you have to look at things from different perspectives.
You literally have to just endure through all those journals, and you have to find them yourself. You’re motivating yourself. You’re thinking, why am I doing this? You’re paying for it. You’re losing sleep. Your whole lifestyle changes. And I feel that when you’re challenged in these environments, that’s what’s going to grow you. And I feel that even now in our society, even just with the community that I’m around, people that haven’t been to university are okay to just voice their opinions and say what they want. They don’t really consider external factors or the effects of what they’re saying. But a skill that you learn in university, you learn these effects. You learn the responses of people. You actually think of, okay, if I say this, what is this going to affect? And that’s a skill that you learn through university. And what a better way to learn the skill than through university, because it’s a skill that you’re going to need.
It’s a skill that you get to do every semester, through every subject. So it’s something that is going to be embedded in the way that you think, you would be able to be a better person because you know how to think properly, and you will be able to think more articulately. You’ll be able to make better choices. I believe that you’d be able to think of things contextually. You’d be able to think of things outside of the realm of what other people are thinking. And that’s where that innovation, that creativity comes from, because you’re thinking outside of what you already know. It’s almost like common knowledge that you grasp and ground, and you get to draw on your experiences and skill. You get to draw on your skills of writing more, researching more.
And they’re the skills that I was teaching in my tutoring business. Sorry, they’re the skills that I was teaching in my tutoring business. I launched Real Stuff Matters, which is an English tutoring business currently. And I launched it back in, I guess four years ago, but I didn’t really go public with it on social media until about three years ago. Before that, I thought, there’s such a gap here. These students are wanting to learn, they’re not understanding the way that they’re learning in school, how can I help them learn so they can get that confidence and apply it in the classroom? So even though I am teaching, sometimes I am teaching mundane subjects, I’m maybe teaching a little bit younger than what I would really like to, but I feel that I am making change and I’m more interested in making change in the families.
I’m not really obviously motivated by teaching them how to spell certain words, I’m motivated by the influence of what that family is going to experience, because it’s something that I didn’t get. And that’s where I guess that whole sense of humility comes in again, which is a really strong characteristic that we have in our Pasifika culture. Is that, sometimes you do have to humble yourself to do that kind of work. Do I like doing spelling tests and reading essays and doing all this stuff? Look, it’s okay. It’s not something that I want to do for the rest of my life, but it’s something that I know is making greater change because it gets the parents involved. It helps the parents see that awareness of learning and development that needs to take place.
Sometimes this is just absent in families. They don’t understand the value of education, similar to how I was brought up or raised. They’re just not aware of it. So I really am on that quest of bringing about educational awareness to families, working with parents, letting them know that their child is intelligent in this particular way, giving them feedback, because maybe they’re not having those relationships or just that confidence in the school. Maybe there’s other issues there, I don’t know. But all I know is that when I get work submitted to me, or when I work with a student, I’m able to see where they’re at and benchmark that based on how many other students that I’ve taught over the years, and just know that your child is here. If you keep going in this direction, this is where they’re going to end up.
They’re really good at this skill. They have a really strong talent here. And I’m able to relay that back to the parent and just let them know, hey, did you know that your child is actually really good in this area? That’s something to look into. That’s something for you to consider. Maybe you could invest a little bit more in that area or spend more time or provide additional resources. And it changes their perspective. And I think that relationship that I do have with the parents now, I’m able to communicate to them, I’m able to give them good feedback, I’m able to say what they could consider. There’s an approach that I take that makes them feel like they’re still in control. I’m not making them feel anything less or anything. I feel confident in when I do communicate to parent’s now, as opposed to when I first started doing this.
So they’re all the things that I love doing with Real Stuff Matters. And I named it Real Stuff Matters because I like teaching real stuff that matters. I like teaching them things that they’re going to need in the workforce. I like to teach them skills, concepts that aren’t really taught in schools. The concept of time management, being able to use your money well, how to save money. And teaching that, and then getting them to write an essay about it and applying the Australian curriculum principles of English writing to that topic. So that’s where I come in and connect my specialisation of what I’ve done in international development and human rights. And there are unsolved problems that the United Nations can’t even solve. And I just bring it back to them to say, look, guys, I know you’re young, but did you know that there’s no one in the world right now that has solved these problems. You guys have the capability and potential to solve these.
And they get excited by that, because you can’t really change adults’ minds. You can’t change how we think now. I’m 31 now, and I don’t think someone can come in and tell me the opposite of what I believe in. But what you can do is, you can influence and motivate younger children. You can influence them and change their mindsets by seeing things differently. That’s why when I do teach, I do try and bring that spark of curiosity back into their lives, because you just don’t know what environment they’re in. There’s so many families out there that might be going through things, and too shy to talk about or even open up about. The students might be going through things that no one knows about. But when you’re around people that are just motivated, inspired, talking about something that you understand, there’s that click, there’s that connection. There’s that sense of, oh my gosh, I get it.
If she’s teaching this and I understand it, this is cool. And that’s what you want. And then I always relay back to them in the sessions and in my classes. I’m like, guys, the reason why you’re in this class is so you can do your work at school easier and quicker, so then you can have fun. Do you want to be in a class and just sit there and not know what you’re talking about? Or do you want to be in a class, know what you’re doing, so then you can just pull away? You don’t have to focus and be too stressed out about what they’re learning. Let’s do this now, let’s have fun and let’s have a little chat about it. That’s where that whole concept of my teaching methods come in. It’s a bit crazy.
Tutoring Pasifika Students
Your students that you are teaching, who are they and how do you recruit them, I guess?
Yeah. I obviously went to social media, because a lot of parents are on social media, through Facebook. A lot of parents are on Facebook, more than Instagram. But I made a platform on social media for my teaching. And then I just started taking photos of my students working, and then they told families, so word of mouth. People would post up what I did in their stories, and then it developed in that way. But when I first started, no one really knew about it, which is obviously the beginning of any business or any entrepreneurial work. I was just doing it one-on-ones and then I thought about posting things on social media just to share my work and obviously have the space for the work that I was doing.
So then I could also reflect back on the work that I had done as well as creating a digital archive of the things that I’d done over a chronological period of time. Looking back at my social media platform for teaching, if you look back to 2017 or 2018, when it started, I can see the journey that I’ve been on. Parents can see the journey. Parents can actually have insights into how I teach. And even when I write about the image or write about the posts, there’s a lot of thought in what I actually write. And it’s to help the parents understand in a way that I believe they would understand, because I’m doing it from a perspective of what I’ve gone through. And I feel like that’s how they would connect and understand.
And it’s talking in a way where they would…it’s like, hey, I get that issue, or that’s an interesting topic. Is she really teaching that? It’s like, yes, I am teaching this. I know it’s different to what they’re teaching in school, that’s why if you come along, you can actually see how I’m teaching. See if your child actually likes tutoring. See if extra-curricular activities is something that you should be doing, because it’s not the norm at the moment in our culture. Some of the students that I teach currently are like, I don’t know anyone that’s doing tutoring. Whereas I know in a lot of other cultures, it’s kind of the normality.
I think it just comes back to that whole educational awareness. Having that social media platform for me to push out the work that I’m doing every week has enabled me to recruit people and families, and then obviously word of mouth and I guess the feedback. So I’m really grateful that I have parents who trust me and believe in the work that I’ve done, people that I’ve grown up with, people who know me. Then I’ve started obviously with friends and their children, and then that’s expanded and then grown in the community. So my role in the community here in Melbourne, a lot of people do know me for what I do, and that’s only because I’ve been consistent in what I’ve done over the years. And it hasn’t changed. During this COVID period, I’ve started doing Zoom classes. I do virtual classroom.
Rather than doing face-to-face, I used to have a studio where I used to do classes one-on-one here in my home. I’ve just done virtual online. So even during this lockdown, I’m teaching seven to nines and nine to twelves, just to help them out, because I know that there’s a gap area there. So I’m running two classes. The class is around 15 students each. And then I do private as well and group families as well, outside of those two classes every other day of the week. And that’s just to help the families that I’ve been on a journey with for the last couple of years. And that’s just something that I’m interested and passionate about, by just bringing that awareness. And it’s through that consistency of teaching these children that those parents are able to talk and talk about how their child’s learning.
They’re able to see the results with the changes in their grades, and they can communicate and share what I do with their families and friends that relay’s back to me and then I just pop them in a class. It’s kind of busy and it’s good. I’d like to do it full-time, but I think I’d want to do more working with the parents. Bringing awareness there, whether that’s through workshops or projects or initiatives, whether that’s seasonal or annual or something like that. That’s something that I would definitely want to do in the near future. And obviously traveling to different regions and obviously spreading the message in my approach there as well. So having all the work that I’ve done over the years in that space is interconnected.
And I feel like this is my apprenticeship phase. This is my apprenticeship phase of the business where I am just working with students and families. But I’m just grateful that I’m able to teach up to 40 kids a week, even just in the part-time hours that I do at the moment. Because I do believe that it is making an impact, and I believe that the families that are benefiting from it now are benefiting from it even more. I’m even grateful for this COVID period because I used to teach nine hours every Saturday. From 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM back-to-back, different children. I literally had every time slot filled with a student or a family who just needed help. Some students were already academically challenged, they just wanted to be even further challenged.
It’s not just the ones that are struggling, I’m more interested in even helping those who are already doing well. How can we make them do even better? How can we set them up? How can we coach them through to finishing year 12? How can I work with the parents? So my time used to be back-to-back in the physical face-to-face world. But because of this whole virtual new normal, because of the situation, it’s forced me to reallocate my time into one period. I’m able to see more students, I’m able to make more of an impact without compromising the hours that I have available. I’ve actually benefited from this period of time, so I’m really grateful for that. And even though I know that the COVID situation is obviously terrible, but I feel like my business has really, really benefited from it because it’s forced me to think like this, which has been good.
Most of my students are Pacific Islander descent. So yeah, they’re all from those backgrounds. 98% of them are.
Family Relationships, Influence, and Expectations
I just wanted to go back a little bit if that’s all right with you, and just unpack some of the things that you have spoken about. Just going back to your family background and that influence of your dad, which clearly, in the educational side of things, if I’ve picked up correctly, on you, your brother and your sister. I suppose, what role he had in your life? Did he stay in the picture after your parents got divorced? That sort of thing. I guess I’m interested and wondering about the origins of that real drive that you had, and your brother obviously had as well.
Yeah. Looking back, I think the relationship that I did have with my dad at the time, I was more closer with my mum. I wanted to spend more time at my mum’s house. My dad, he didn’t really talk about going to university, doing the whole way, but I think he just expected that that’s where we were going to go. And there was that heavy reliance of self-reliance. Like, you have the responsibility to worry about your education and you need to do what you can to get there. He really pushed all that,
Even with me, I was like mum, there cleaning, cooking for him, making sure that my siblings were okay. That was the role that I had, and I think he just wanted to obviously show more experiential side of living. Doing family things like just taking us out, trying to be a dad, even though he was obviously going through a lot. We didn’t really talk about the school side. It was more just doing the right thing. I think, because he followed a lot of the…not say rules, but because he was righteous. Like, let’s do the right thing. I think that’s where I learnt those skills from. Learning to follow the law, making sure you’re doing the right thing, do a good job. If you’re not going to do it, don’t bother doing it. Don’t waste your time. He taught me those fundamentals. So I think that’s where I really benefited from my dad in that sense, by him just sharing that knowledge with us.
I feel like he taught me just the fundamentals in life, just the basics. But I feel like they’re really, really importantbut I think it was expected from us and just to do a good job.
I’ve read apparently that expectations of parents are very powerful. So often you have children that go on to higher education and things, they never were actually told, you have to go to uni, but they just somehow knew that that was expected. It sounds a little bit like what you’re saying.
Yeah. And I feel that because it was expected, we just had that expectation within us as well, even though it wasn’t talked about or we weren’t prepared for it. Usually when you’ve got the expectation, it’s like, well, I’m going to make sure my son or my daughter is getting this, this and this, and is going there, there, there, so then they can do all these things and be set up and ready to go. It was expected, but we were responsible to get there and kind of fend for ourselves. I mean, I was working part-time and that kind of a thing, and that was normal. I remember sometimes I would compromise study over working, so I could just make a little bit more money so I could buy my lunches, pay for my school fees. Just that kind of thing.
We didn’t really get those allowances, and I think that stemmed from a disconnection from my parents. There probably was a disconnection between them communicating and knowing about the issues. I think if my dad knew that my school fees weren’t getting paid when he was paying for child support or that kind of thing, I think he would have been upset. I think a lot of that just was more of the adult responsibility. And because being a teenager or a young teen, you’re not really aware of these things, you’re like, oh, but we don’t have money? Okay. You don’t really go in and ask details and do an investigation. I would have done that if I had the mind now. I’d be like, okay, what’s going on here? Let’s call up the banks. Who’s lying here. Why is things not getting paid for.
So because of that, I just thought, okay, what can I do to close that gap? So I thought, okay, I’ll work and I’ll fill the gap. But it didn’t really solve the problem, the root cause of the issue. The root cause of the issue is that my school fees weren’t getting paid. And it’s just like, I don’t know who’s responsible for it. I still don’t know who is responsible for it ‘til this day. But all I knew is that I had to step up and actually put myself in a position to pay it, so I could attend, because that’s what I wanted. I wanted to finish school.
Family Attitudes to Education
What was your parents’ educational backgrounds? Bachelor’s or undergrad?
Yeah. My dad did an Associate Diploma in Electronics and Technology, and my mum did a Certificate in Aged Care. So she was an aged care worker and my dad worked as radio electronics, I think a transmitter or something.
What about in your extended families on both sides? What was the attitudes towards education and work or professional backgrounds and things?
Yeah. On my dad’s side, because we didn’t really know his side, we only heard about them. So, whether they were influential or not, I think that it was absent. We didn’t really know them personally. So, even if, what they did do, if it affected me or not, I don’t know if it really played a role. But it could have been, I don’t know if it’s genetic or something, but yeah, on my father’s side, my uncle is as a doctor. He’s, I guess, in hydraulics and water engineering. And my cousin is also a scientist as well on my dad’s side, but I don’t really know them, but that’s kind of the lifestyle that they live. Another one is an entrepreneurial business manager. He runs his own start-up. And my other uncle on my dad’s side, he’s a pilot.
So, even my husband, he’s a prison officer and even my role as well. I’m just thinking, I hope that we are our children’s world. I hope they think that we’ve made it, because that’s what I want my children to know. So, I wish that there was probably a better delivery in how my dad saw himself, because I think he’s amazing. I think what he’s done is pretty good. On my mother’s side, they’re from Kiribati, they are just, I guess, normal middle-class workers. One of them is an ambulance driver, another one’s a teacher. So, they all did their education in Fiji or in Auckland or New Zealand, sorry. So, they do have, I guess a fundamental education on their side as well. So, it’s pretty good and they’re all living over there, back in Kiribati that are doing that, so it was important to them as well.
So yeah, she even did a certification in aged care work, which was probably pretty difficult for her given that, she had to learn the language. She obviously spoke a little bit of English, but she had to learn the language and obviously struggled with a lot of cultural identity, herself, back in the eighties here in Australia. Especially living here in rural Victoria. Her and my dad bought their first house in Wonthaggi up in rural Vic. And, I just think my mum struggled with a lot of things, especially just feeling living in this new environment, as opposed to the islands. She didn’t really have a community to talk to or work with or understand or anything. So, she’s only using her knowledge, what she knew from what her mum taught her.
So, the things that she taught me are based on what she knows. And I think if you do what you’re taught and what the best way to be brought up and raised by what your mum has said, then you’ve done a good job. And I think that’s what my mum believes. And, even till this day, I do love my mum and what she’s done and how she’s raised me, even though she may not have seen that side of education earlier on, it’s not something that I want to get upset about because I can be self-encouraged because at least I knew. I knew that I had to take that step and I knew that education was going to be my outlet. So, I’m just grateful that yes, I had her side to teach me those things from what she knows from her culture, but it’s ultimately benefited me in the long run even till now. So, it’s been really good.
What’s her your perception of how she regards you and your siblings now in terms of what you have gone on to do and things.
Yeah, so she’s really, really proud of us. She thinks that we’ve done really well. And I guess now that I’m obviously 31 and obviously mature enough to understand things, even as, from a mother’s perspective, she’s really quiet about our success. Even preparing for this interview, she was sharing to me, she was like, “Cass, you wouldn’t be where you are today, if it wasn’t for your past experiences, so you need to think about that. You need to think about what you’ve gone through and all I know is that I’ve done the best for you to get you where you are.”
So, whether she didn’t indirectly help me to get into university and apply and give me those skills, she’s helped me in so many other ways, especially in that cultural sense, the soft skills, the emotional intelligence that you learn through cultural identity, through our culture, through the Kiribati culture, is something that is so innate to me. And I feel that we’ve already got…I feel like our siblings have the upper hand because we’re able to communicate better. We’re able to understand the emotional side to other people. We’re able to have hard conversations with people and get successful outcomes out of them. And I do believe that’s from just my mum’s way of upbringing and the way that she’s brought us up. So, she’s very humble in how she shares our successes. She doesn’t really advocate too much, about things, but she has that sense of pride now in other realms, when she’s on a one-on-one conversation with someone.
So, if she’s communicating or having a conversation with someone, she’ll be like, “Yeah, did you know Cass is blah, blah, blah, doing this.” So, there, I’m not sure if that’s being humble or not, but she’s really proud or excited to share face-to-face how we’re going, as opposed to just letting it out and let everyone know through social media or something like that. And she’s always encouraging me. So, she really does encourage me, especially with my work. For example, she’s like “Cass, don’t worry if you don’t get any students, because they’ll come, don’t worry.” She’s always really encouraging me, especially with what I’m doing. And, she always says to me that, “No one can do what you do Cass, what you do is just incredible.” “I can’t believe you’re doing all those things and you still have time, wow.” So, that’s what she would say to me. And I’m like, “Oh, thanks mum, that’s good.”
But then she’ll tell me off and say, “Well, you’ve done too much and it’s your fault.” That’s like classic mum, that’s how she is. She’s very direct and there’s no filter at all, and that’s okay. I’m okay with her. She can say some, I guess, really intense things, that other people would be like, “Is she joking?” I’m like, “No, she’s not.” But it’s okay, it’s funny because it’s pretty scary what she’s saying. So, you have a laugh about, her making comments like, “Oh, you’re the worst mother ever.” And you’re like, “Oh, am I?” But it’s funny because that’s something that you can’t say to other people.
Yeah. But I think a lot of Pasifika would understand what I’m saying. It’s just, we accept it, we have a laugh, and we just think we see it as more as, “Okay, we need to get back in line.” That’s what it really means. It’s like, “Okay, let’s check ourselves, mum’s said something, okay something’s wrong.” So, it really does…then you just kind of re-reflect and think, “Okay, how can I do better?” “Or, let’s examine this? Let’s reflect on what I’ve done so far.” Yeah.
Community Involvement and Cultural Identity
Could maybe just comment a bit on to what extent your upbringing was part of some Islander community and what that was like.
Yeah. So, with the I-Kiribati culture, it’s very different to the Polynesian culture. So, my mum tried to merge them together. She tried to kind of go, “No, you need to do it like this.” But, I felt, “Well, isn’t that Polynesian, isn’t that Tongan?” And then, I guess there was a bit of confusion in cultural identity for myself at some stage when I was younger, because she was trying to merge the I-Kiribati culture with the Tongan culture, and they’re completely different. But also complement each other, if that makes sense. So, I did feel at times, I was getting raised in the Tongan culture a little bit more because obviously my stepfather, he had more of a…I guess the Tongan culture, there was a lot of rules and guidelines and principles that they do follow, and it became the normality of things. But mum taught us all these fundamentals from a I-Kiribati side, that did cross over, so I did have…
In terms of the cultural identity, I feel as I got older in my twenties, I started to really want to understand it more and spend more time with my culture. So, it wasn’t until I got old enough that I realised I’m like, “Hang on, I’ve been taught Tongan culture, but I’m not Tongan, I’m I-Kiribati, what does that mean or what does that look like?” So then, there was a lot of things that we did in our Kiribati side that I wanted to get involved with. And so, I started to get involved in our community, our committee. I’m now currently the president of the Victorian Kiribati Association. So that was my way of like me getting involved with my community and learning more about my culture.
So, I took the active step of being more involved, especially as I’ve gotten older, because I want to know my culture more, as opposed of it being merged with Polynesian. And I think that was probably the big issue that I was experiencing from a cultural identity perspective when I was a teenager. I didn’t know the difference between the two, but now that I’m much older and now I’m more involved in these community initiatives and things. I’m always thinking, “Okay, what’s the I-Kiribati perspective? Okay, we do it like this.”
All these things that I actually already knew, I thought, I didn’t know. I’m like, “Oh, hang on, now the water is important, or the canoe means this, or a meeting house is this.” All these things I actually, didn’t really notice until I started to see a lot of similarities and started to spend a lot of time with the I-Kiribati people. And I feel more connected to my I-Kiribati side now than I did ever when I was younger or through my youth and even through my teenage hood. So yeah, I think it’s been kind of like a learning journey and taking the initiative, getting more involved has really helped me get there.
If you think about like going to school and stuff was in the broader mainstream Australian culture, and then at home you had I-Kiribati and Tongan culture to deal with. So yeah, I guess, what was that like for you maybe in that outside of the home context, the mainstream world of school and work and things?
So, I actually felt like I was more Tongan than Kiribati at a time, I really did embrace it to its full, but it was only introduced to me after I was 10 years old or when I was a teenager, when I really understood it. So, it was like getting introduced into a new culture and then being a part of it. So, outside of the home, I felt that I was…I said I was Pacific Islander, so I didn’t really say where I was. I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m I-Kiribati but I’m raised in Tongan culture.”
And, I said that for long period of time. And then, it wasn’t until my twenties where I was like, “No I’m Australian, I’m I-Kiribati.” Yes, I was raised there, but I want to understand my I-Kiribati side because there’s so many things that make up who I am that are from the I-Kiribati culture. And, what I realise now is that, I was probably pretending to fit in with the Tongan culture because it was popular, it was common, there was so many events happening on and all of that.
But I am benefiting from all the cultures now, if that makes sense. I really love, even just the way that I communicate and the way that I talk.
I’m also grateful that…also, even just with my complexion and just even the way that I look, most people would have realised or see me as a Pacific Islander, but it’s only when you really talk to me and get to know me, they’re like, “Ah, she understands all the Islander cultures, she understands the Islander way, I feel like I can connect with her and she understands me.” So then it’s like, ah there’s that element. But then, “She sounds like an Aussie.” So it’s just, you get a mix-match, like Annie, I guess. Annie is…as well or friends that you have, so. Yeah, I think it’s benefited me more now as opposed to the mismatch that the difficulty, the struggles, the hardships that I was going through with all the different cultures when I was a teenager, that was just a complete nightmare.
But, getting out of all of that, I went through a storm and now it’s all clear. It’s like everything has its benefit. The Tongan culture has taught me so many values and so many things that helped me with that Polynesian understanding, which majority of my students are Polynesian. But the Micronesian side from the I-Kiribati side has taught me things that are me. I don’t even know how to explain what they are because it’s just innate to me. So, that combined along with my Australian identity just really complements one another. I’m able to play the upper hand in the corporate space with who I am. I feel that I’m not discounted in any way, because I do come across as Australian to some people. So, I guess that initial…what’s it called? Sorry. It’s like the initial…impression that people get from me, I don’t have any struggles or any difficulties.
Whereas I do know that a lot of people who may look Pasifika, would struggle with that, similar to what my mum’s struggle with. She struggled with a lot of identity issues, especially in the nursing industry, in the eighties and nineties. She obviously suffered from a lot of discrimination and a lot of issues within the workforce. So, having her suffer from that, having my sister suffer from it…my sister looks like my mum, so she’s quite dark as opposed to me who I’m more fair with freckles, more Australian. She suffered from that. So, my own family suffered from that. And that to me just makes me more aware and more open to knowing and accepting people and understanding where they could be coming from. And I think that’s where that relationship, with talking people from different cultures and different cultural backgrounds. I really do have that upper hand. I’m able to negotiate better. I’m able to communicate with them better because of those experiences that I’ve had growing up.
Pasifika Peers at School and University
When you were in high school and it was a difficult time for you, identity wise, so you said there were some other Islander students at the school. So, was that how you…like I guess…yeah, I suppose I’m trying to understand when you were in that period of confusion, how did you feel in the school environment?
Yeah, it was really interesting. It was a bit weird to be honest. We did have Pasifika students in the school and I felt like I was one of them, but then at the same time, some of them were probably wanting to leave school early or they probably didn’t want to take that academic journey. So then, I felt like I wasn’t a part of them. So, as much as I wanted to be like them and be accepted, there was some people that were doing the opposite of what I believed in or what I wanted to do for my life. So, that’s where I felt I was different, but then I was okay with that. I felt empowered when I knew that. I felt like, well, because I knew what was right and what was wrong at that time to know what was going to benefit me.
So, when that happened or when I was searching for someone to work with or to be like, or to have that influence in, there’s probably one or two people. And then, I just felt okay to have that one or two people. They were the minority as well. So that to me, was enough for me to be self-motivated, to take that route in education and to go to university. I know that there was a minority of us at the time that were going to university, but I felt like we were all connected because we were all from different Islands. We had some Tongans and some Samoans as well, that were going into university. So, me being I-Kiribati and Australian, I just felt like, “Oh, we’re all here, we made it, I know there’s only three of us, but hey, let’s all stick together even though we’re doing different subjects.”
So, it was just about that sense of community again, which is such a prevalent characteristic that we have in our culture. As long as we’re all together, we’re going to be okay. So, we just stuck together and hung out in the libraries together. Even though we didn’t know each other beforehand, it was like, “Oh, you’re Islander too.” “Okay great, what are you studying?” “I’m doing science.” “Okay, let’s all hang out and study together and motivate each other.” And then, that’s where we felt that sense of connection as a minority in a place where we wouldn’t really find a lot of the same kind of people from our own culture.
Yeah. But I’m pretty sure it’s all different now. So, it was hard back then. It wasn’t…sorry, it was hard to feel accepted because you’re always wanting to feel like you belong too. But I felt I was able to, I guess, feel connected someway to other Polynesians, any way through friends and families from different islands and different cultures, but we all felt all the same. We all felt that we’re all connected. You’d have Cook Island friends, you’d have Samoan friends, Tongan friends, Fijian friends. And it was like “Oh, we’re all family.” Even though, we’re all from different islands. And I feel like that’s one of the coolest things that our culture has. We all look after each other, regardless of what island we’re from. There’s no real discrimination amongst Pasifika from the others because we know that we’re from a minority in terms of the world. And, we just really do look out for each other, generally speaking and from the people that I was around and who I grew up with, there was always that sense of connection with friends from those different islands where we did feel like we could relate.
Support for Pasifika Youth at School
I guess I’m just wanted to maybe spend a little bit of time, if you could talk a little bit about some practical things that helped you at high school and just thinking, I suppose about young people who might be in high school today and not quite sure about where to go or what to do or whatever. Because it sounds from your story that you had quite a strong internal drive, but were there any sort of things that maybe your school did or didn’t do that would’ve been helpful or like supports through the university or anything like that, that helped with knowing how to take the next step?
Yeah, I think it’s…I’m just trying to think. Well, I honestly think it’s about being around someone that you can look up to or trying to find someone that you can look up to or for your parents to notice that something needs to change. So, sometimes there might be situations where children don’t really understand because it’s normalised behaviour within their family or within themselves, that they don’t realise that their behaviour or just their outlook on how they perceive things and view things is considered different or an issue.
So it’s about, I guess the parents trying to bring that awareness to their children in order to see what they could do to change whatever they’re currently around. And, whether that be the motivation that is needed for parents to take as the initial step, that’s probably one way. And, I think even just through me doing my awareness of education and providing a service, is one of those ways that parents can really benefit from, and it’s one way that is working. So, it’s just about, I guess, being in a place where parents would see you, so through mentoring and other organisations and NGOs that are currently up and running now, that are trying to reach more families and more students, especially in like the western suburbs of Melbourne in the Brimbank area. I know that there’s a lot of organisations that are Pasifika-run and Pasifika-funded that are trying to help children in that sense, and actually tap into cultural principles and cultural practices to help bring that sense of awareness and a sense of clarity to their minds, to try and explain to these children, things that they would only understand through speaking to someone who was from the same culture. So I think that’s really, really beneficial. And I think that will definitely help.
And it’s about the student. The student has to have some level of want or desire to change as well. I’ve worked with students who don’t want to change, but they expect me to change them. And it is a really, really long journey. And it’s also a difficult one. You really can’t change someone unless they want change to happen. There needs to be that initial change that takes place first. And I think through, just knowing what is out there, organisations and NGOs for parents to know, and for students to know, and that means just communicating in a different way, going on social media, networking in that sense, speaking to a family, trying to work through there. And then it’s through voice of mouth, because our community’s quite small here in Melbourne, and I think it’s only through word of mouth that people will know about you. And it’s just a matter of time before parents actually, or students actually, make that move.
So it’s important for our, I guess, Pacific Islander people, to be consistent in whatever they’re doing. Sometimes you can do something great and then it just stops. Whereas I feel like some of the NGOs that are currently running now, they’ve been in play for years now. So it’s good because you never know when that light bulb might go off in the student’s head or the parent’s head where they’re like, “Okay, we actually need to do this,” because I’ve had parents who are like, “Hey, Cass, I’ve been watching you for a while. I think my child needs help.” It’s like, okay, great. And it’s only when you put that post up in that particular week, where their week’s probably okay, for them to reach out and think, “Okay, let’s actually do something.” So it’s just, keep trying, and just making sure that there’s a space, a platform.
I’m trying to do it through the way of helping them do better in school, so then they can stay in school. So that’s my service and my passion that I’m trying to drive. And I’m trying to drive that passion with learning into the child, and for them to stick it out, regardless of the adversity that they face. That’s my goal overall, regardless if you don’t understand what I’m teaching, as long as you’re feeling motivated, and as long as you’re feeling that sense of connection and understanding of what I’m teaching, and you feel connected in some way and you’re feeling good. And that’s okay, because that means you’ll come back next week and you would want to keep, give it a crack, and maybe next week you’ll do well.
I’ve had parents who were like, “My son hates English. There’s no way he’s going to do it. He chucked the laptop out the door. He does not want a bar of it.” And I’m just thinking, “What’s this behaviour? Is this behaviour from the child? Or is this behaviour from you accepting what he’s doing? Are you okay with this?” So sometimes I’ll even just reach out to the parent and be like, “Okay, let me speak to him. Let me see if I can actually have a conversation with him and change his mind. I think he’s worried, he’s built up this wall of, he can’t do it. And every teacher that’s tried to make him feel that he can, they just probably have a different approach that he’s not connecting to.”
So I feel like that’s where, I guess, that cultural understanding comes in play, because I’m able just to get on the phone. I’ve got that, I guess, that confidence in the delivery of, I know exactly what this child needs to hear, I’ve done this before. I go look, “Hey, you’re here in this class because you’re struggling in your other class. This is a secret class for you to try and do well. Come on, let’s get involved.” And he’s like, “Okay.” And I can just read the play, even though he doesn’t want to talk. If this student doesn’t want to talk at all, I can read the play, where he’s at. And that’s just through, I guess, all the experiences that I’ve been through. And it’s just because he’s probably never had anyone speak to him in a way that he would understand.
And, thankfully, this child loves study now, it was just about having that initial conversation, seeing the red light, knowing what to say, so then he could…I could have given up on him. I could have said, “Oh, well that’s his fault. I don’t know what’s going to happen if he can’t even write and he’s 12 years old, what are we going to do there?” So at least I’m still working with him. He’s still really keen and motivated. And that’s the change that I want to take, that’s why I think the work that I do matters, because it’s families like that, where the parents didn’t realise that if they just tried a little bit more, and didn’t give up, that they could actually bring greater change, especially to their children.
My audience is parents, but it’s funny, because my audience that I speak to are parents. They’re the ones who are on social media, and some students don’t have social media because they’re too young, or, and I feel like in that age group of, when they’re nine to 12, there’s a change in their growth and in their brain development. And there’s studies on it as well, that show you that they have a sense of justice and sense of, “Okay, I know what, I can start to think for myself.” They’re always listening to their parents, but when that shift changes to where you start to think for yourself, that’s where it can be dangerous in terms of what decisions you do make. So it’s important to try and work or tap in there, so then you can bring change and spark that curiosity there and just maintain it, so they know that it’s important. Sometimes they don’t have people in their lives that are explaining these things to them or making them understand it.
And it’s just common knowledge, that you would think would be getting taught, but it’s not. Just simple things like, “Oh, he doesn’t want to do it.” It’s like, “Why not?” “I don’t know.” “Are you okay with that?” “Well, what can I do? I’m working all day. I’m tired. I can’t force him to do something that he doesn’t want to do.” There’s also this sense of responsibility that some parents think that it’s the school’s responsibility to make sure that they’re learning, which, how does that argument go?
It’s hard, because if you don’t understand the education system, you would just go, “Well, he’s in school, that’s your responsibility. I’m the mother. What do you expect from me? What, you want me to do additional work?” So it’s that whole roles and responsibilities argument that carries on. And it’s just about just explaining it to them, so they understand you’re responsible. They’re there to complement it, but fundamentally you are responsible to drive how they are going to think, and what they’re exposed to and influenced by, through their learning journey.
So whether that is through engaging with me and talking with me and just having that relationship, whether that’s something, at least it’s something that they’re getting instead of nothing. And I think through just the learning side, that’s what I try and do, but I know that there’s other organisations out there that are doing other things, creativity, arts, there’s a lot of other elements to a learner’s perspective that you can add. I’m trying to fill the void of, I guess, the sense of academia and excellence and writing, because writing is a core skill that you’re going to need in the workforce. I even explain to my 12-year old’s, I’m like, “If you want to leave school, that’s fine. But how are you going to negotiate your salary? How are you going to read an employment document? How are you going to know the difference between a letter of offer, and whether you’re getting value for money?”
All these things, I teach them, but I teach them through writing. And I think it’s really cool because they’re learning it, and at the same time I’m teaching them something, but they can apply the skills to what the teacher’s teaching at school, because it’s all the same. It’s just a different topic, but at least I’m teaching them a topic that they get, plus I’m hoping it’s teaching them something fundamentally, now, that maybe they probably haven’t been taught before.
Parent’s Expectations of Education
I think that expectation of parents that you just send your child to school and that’s the school’s job to educate them and not yours as a parent. I’m pretty sure that’s not confined just to the Pacific Islander community, it’s pretty common, but I think that’s also possibly a generational thing a little bit, as well, I’m wondering, from the era when teachers were far more didactic, and it was that authoritarian teacher-child relationship. Yeah, I think I remember when my kids were young, hearing somewhere, I don’t know where it was, but something or other about like, when you’re supporting your child through education, it should be a partnership between you and the school, and that just really stuck in my brain. But a lot, even in people that don’t have that attitude at all, they really are like, and I think as well, a lot of that blaming of teachers, angry parents and all that sort of thing comes out of this expectation that, “You’re not doing magical things with my child.” That’s just a little bit of a diversion, but I think it’s – I think that, like that idea of working with the families is actually huge.
Yeah. You summed it up. It is a partnership, and I’ve read that in research papers as well. It is a partnership between the parent, the child and the school. It’s not an institution that you send them to, and then there’s a wall. It’s like, “No, you work in partnership. You’ve got to contribute to this just as much as, we’re complementing to your child’s learning.” And I think that’s the gap.
I think I’m just trying to do it in, it just so happens that my students are Pacific Islander. And I think, whether that’s just because that’s who I’ve been exposed to, or that’s just the luck of the draw, it’s not that I just teach them, it’s just who keep coming to me. I feel a sense of comfortability when I am teaching them, to be honest. I’ve taught students from different cultures, Vietnamese, Australian, Indian, I’ve taught all different nationalities, but I do feel a real strong connection to the Pacific Islander students that I am teaching.
I just feel like I’m at home. I can talk to them like they’re my siblings. We get it. We understand it. And I just see a lot of great work come out of the relationships that I do build, especially with the parents. They’re more genuine. I’m just able to get right into it. I’m able to be upfront with things, and able to deliver feedback, whether it’s negative or positive, and I just see so many things develop out of it, as opposed to other families who have a different perspective, different cultures that have a different way of what they expect from me and what they want from their child. There is a disconnect that’s completely unique and different to the way the Pacific Islanders educate and teach their children. It’s like I have to re-shift how I can communicate to these kinds of students.
Whereas with the Pacific Island community, a lot of the parents are like, “We’re just grateful that you’ll be teaching my child, because I’m working full time, and I know he’s struggling here, but I’m not sure what to do. Please guide me.” And then I’ll just go, “Look, this is what you can do. And this is how you do it.” “Great. Thanks. I’m going to try and implement that.” And they’re also really honest, if they don’t do the work, or they didn’t do it, they’re okay to tell me that. And I feel like we’ve got that mutual understanding that, I’m okay with that too. I’m not some evil teacher or something. “That’s okay. I understand demands, but, hey, just come to the next class and we’ll just kick it off. Let’s just have a good time.”
And I love that, and I love the way the Pacific islanders, because there’s just that relationship there that we just know how to communicate and talk to each other, and there’s no hard feelings. And if there’s an issue, it’ll get solved. It’s like, “Oh, sorry.” “Yeah. I don’t know. I’m sorry.” “No, no, I just misunderstood it.” It’s just so polite. It’s pretty funny, but it’s good, and I love that. I love that.
Advice for Pasifika Youth
If you could maybe just share a bit of advice, not so much to parents, but to young people themselves, based on your own experience in terms of, I guess, for people who might be feeling that they’re struggling, or not sure of what direction they want to go in, and things?
Yeah. Yeah. So I guess my advice to my younger self, or to students out there would be to just ensure that you’re clear on where you want to be in the long term. So whether you’re thinking more about short term effects, it’s really important to think of the long term effects, or long term opportunities that lay ahead. Also think about long term goals overall, don’t be too hard on yourself in trying to get where you want to get in the next year, because it might not always go to plan, or you might not get there. But it’s all about just maintaining and ensuring that you are following through with what you feel passionate about, or even if you’re not sure about your passion, be sure about who you are, and where you want to go, and how you want to live life, and how you want to see yourself in the bigger picture.
Or take the necessary steps that you think you can do, that you are in control of, and that you do have the power to do, in order to help self-develop yourself. Make sure that you are also around people who are going to uplift you and are going to encourage you. Really important. Try and get advice from someone that is an expert in the field, don’t get advice from someone that hasn’t been to university to ask if you should go to university. Some people might get advice from their parents, and they may not have gone there. Just go a bit further and say, “Okay, do you know anyone in the community, mum and dad, that I can speak to that’s gone through it, so I can talk to them?” So it’s just about setting up those right communication outlets and gateways, so then that communication can take place. It’s really important to have, I guess, that conversation, just to refine whether it’s for you or not.
Yeah, speak to the people that have got similar experiences, or somewhere where you want to go. And if you’re not sure, speak to someone within your community, or reach out to someone on social media that you believe that is in the same, is living or doing something that you’re passionate about, that you’re interested in, whether that’s the arts, writing, academia, workforce. And look at the journey that they’ve been on, just for advice and for encouragement, and as well as just for guidance. Sometimes when I wasn’t sure I would, you can look up online now and see what their journey is, and where they’ve gone, and what they did and the struggles that they’ve gone through.
And it’s important to always self-encourage yourself. Encourage yourself. Sometimes there are people out there that may not encourage you, or they might be discouraging you, because you’re probably somewhere where they’re not. And it’s important just to believe in yourself and what you’re capable of, because that’s what you can stand on when you’ve got no-one else to support you, or no-one else to relate to. I went through similar things myself, and there was a lot of struggles and a lot of hardships and a lot of storms that I’ve been through, but it’s made me who I am today. It’s made me more resilient. It’s increased my determination and my level of endurance, especially when I’m pursuing something, it’s made me more goal-oriented and it’s really set me up to live a successful life.
I believe where I am now, I’m really happy and grateful for where I am, even though I’m not satisfied or content in where I am now. But I do believe it’s from those earlier years of just being really mindful and being strategic in what I do choose, and who I spend my time with. It’s going to be difficult for you to spend time with people who may have a different mindset or have a different way of living. And if you’re okay to, I guess, adapt to them, but then draw back and then try and be who you are. It’s going to be a struggle and it can be difficult, but just try and ensure that you always stay true to yourself and what you’re capable of. It’s meant to be hard, otherwise we’d all be taking the shortcuts in life.
So just make sure that you stick it out, keep going. I feel like we need to ensure that we’ve finished things, because if you can finish something that means you can, whatever you start next, you will be able to finish it, because you’ve done it. And that’s the first step, that’s high school. That’s Year 12. That’s finishing something because you started it. You’ve spent five years doing it, what, you want to drop out on the last year? It doesn’t make sense, finish it. So then you’ve got that track record to say, “Hey, I am consistent, and I finish things. I always start what I finish.”
And I really believe in that principle, when you start something, just finish it, and then go into the next thing. And that’s how life is, life is all about changing the way that you work and adapt, and it’s about doing things seasonally, and doing things that are aligning with your priority, and what is the vision of that particular point in time? And that’s the beauty of it, because you get to do things and then start it, complete it. And it’s only for a period of time. It’s not for the rest of your life. You’re not going to do this for the rest of your life. You could be doing something in the same way, in the same field, but you could be doing different things every month, you could be doing things every, bi-yearly or annually. So really, really important. Keep going.
Pasifika Cultural Strengths
Often in these discussions around different migrant communities and things. There’s an idea that sometimes, and particularly, I think around some of the discourse around Islanders and things is, there can be a bit of an attitude that sometimes the cultural stuff is a barrier, but I wondered if you could maybe comment on what you see. You’ve already done this in interview, but in an advice-giving way. Some of the things that you think young people can draw on as strengths, from their cultural upbringing, as they go out.
I truly believe that us Pacific Islanders, we have the upper hand in a lot of soft skills. Our ability to communicate with people is stemmed from the way that we were taught to communicate to our elders. We’re taught respect from such a young age, and I’m not even joking. This is such a core quality to have, especially when you’re in the workforce. I’ve benefited from it in my current roles, especially in corporate, I’m able to get job opportunities and job promotions, salary increases, projects given to me, because of my relationship building ability. And those relationship-building characteristics are really from the way that we were taught from our parents. We’re taught to respect our colleagues and just our managers and senior levels of management.
We’re taught to be humble and just to do the hard work. We are taught to work with our hands, and actually work really hard, and do things properly and actually do it with love. And I believe that that’s a core skill that we need, and it’s a core skill that is really highly regarded, especially in the professional workforce. And these are skills that we’re taught that are innate to us, especially as Pacific Islanders, even just the characteristic of being humble. I believe being humble will get you so far, especially through your professional life, being humble, just doing the groundwork first, like being okay just to do the work where you’ve got to get your hands dirty. Everyone has to do it.
And I believe that because, even me being a Pacific Islander, I was okay to get my hands dirty. Sometimes I do things that are below my pay grade, but that doesn’t discount my role in what I am and what I’m worth. And I believe those characteristics, and your initiative to want to do it just really shows, I guess, how much you value your role, how much you are valued by others in your organisation. And that’s through those attributes of being humble, being respectful, being resilient, being able to communicate, and being able to listen. And just talk to other people as humans, and not talk to them as if there’s a disconnection.
So really embrace those characteristics, especially as a Pacific Islander. I’ve benefited from them professionally in my work life, and I know that you can too, and I really believe that they’re skills that you already have now, that you’re probably not even used to using, but I can guarantee you that in the future, you will be using them, and you’ll be using them to your advantage, and you’ll be able to use them in ways to change and actually contribute to future-making decisions.
Is there anything that we haven’t touched on, that you wanted to mention?
I’ve never had anyone ask me those questions before, so I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this story about my upbringing. So yeah, it was really lovely just to even look back on what I’ve done and where I’ve come from. Because sometimes I think I could have done more. I always think maybe I should have done more, earlier on. Sometimes I think I wish my mum picked up on a couple of things, sometimes I wish my parents never got divorced and then everything would have been okay. But then, it is what it is, and I feel like I’ve grown from it and yeah, I feel like I’m really reaping, I guess, all those past experiences more currently now, more presently than ever. So, yeah, I’m really grateful. Thank you so much.
I was thinking about my story, I was like, “Oh, I hope I didn’t say anything bad about my parents. I hope I didn’t.” I was just being honest, but I think it’s important to let people know that we’re not all perfect, and we do come from families that might not be perfect. Because I could just imagine, everyone’s going to have their own unique story, but they might come from a family where mum and dad were together and whatever, and they may have had other issues that they can, maybe discriminatory issues or something.
But I think it’s good to hear the side that, even just what I went through, and even the way that I, even just my complexion, and even just the way that I look and sound, but there were so many things that I struggled with anyway, regardless, that people might not know. You know what I mean? Especially with my cultural identity, especially with family breakup. And I think that’s, because there might be people out there that are going through, or students out there that might be going through similar things and thinking, “Well, she comes from the picture-perfect family,” or whatever, but it’s-
And I can’t believe that this interview was based on the very thing that I love. My learning journey, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I unpacked it like that, from the beginning. Oh, it’s so amazing. I think, I can’t wait. It’s just incredible that you get to actually do an interview based on something that you’re really into, beginning when it first made sense to you. So, how lucky am I? I’m so grateful.
Support during primary and high school
- Peers and friends as a source of support at school
- Support from parents during schooling (Part 1 & Part 2)
- Support from teachers and schools
- Transition from school to post-school education (Part 1 & Part 2)
Experiences of post-secondary education and training
- Experiences of university
- University journeys: Interruptions and finding one’s direction
- Diverse pathways towards university
- Experiences of TAFE
- Short courses and on-the-job training
- Early aspirations and current occupation
- Talking about future aspirations with family members
- Networks of family and friends
- Be proactive and seize unexpected opportunities
- Creating opportunities: Volunteering
Experiences of Work
- Benefits of being a Pacific Islander at work
- Engaging with Pacific community members through work (Part 1 & Part 2)
- Navigating family and career
- Future aspirations
Reflections and advice to young Pacific People
- ‘Akesa – Community Facilitator
- Ama – Lashing Business Administrator & Marketing Coach
- Annie – International & Community Development Specialist
- Ashirah – University student
- Cass – English Teacher, Writer, Project Manager, & President of the Victorian Kiribati Association
- Chris – Field Officer (HR)
- Christopher – Carpenter & Stonemason
- Crofton – Visual Effects & Animation Specialist
- David – App company CEO
- Elisabeth – Teacher
- Elvina – Building Services Mechanical Engineer
- Fipe – Cacao Products Manufacturing Business Owner
- Grace – Airline Customer Service Agent
- Leki – Physiotherapist
- Luisa – Registered Nurse
- Malelega – Legal Assistant
- Marita – Writer
- Rose – Workplace Consultant
- Sefita – Community Engagement Officer
- Semisi – Lawyer
- Talei – Lawyer & Community Engagement + Government Relations Consultant
- Teisa – Medical Doctor
- Tevita – IT Professional
- Thom – Make-up Artist
- Venna – Lashing Business Owner & Trainer