In 2019 barrister and solicitor Lanu Faletau was selected by the Obama Foundation as an Obama Leader for New Zealand and Tonga. Lanu is a former University of Auckland tuākana tutor and New Zealand MATES mentor and she is a member of the Auckland Women’s Lawyers Association.
Lanu Faletau remembers begging her parents to be sent to boarding school in New Zealand.
At the time pro-democracy riots in Nukualofa, Tonga, where she was born had unsettled the local community and worked in her favour. Plus, her father and her brothers had all attended boarding school.
But life as a boarder at Auckland’s St Cuthbert’s College, after living in a traditional Pasifika village, had its challenges.
“I remember the first time I used the school’s washing machine I ran to the matron
terrified at the noise it was making, only to be told the appliance was operating normally.”
A school history trip to Europe and a growing interest in social justice issues encouraged Lanu to follow in her older brother’s footsteps and study law, even though she had doubts that the legal profession was a place for Pasifika women.
At university the lack of structure and the competitive nature of Law School proved challenging initially, but Lanu knuckled down trading off a limited social life for better grades.
But then her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“Suddenly my world was turned upside down juggling studies and caring for my mother who had always been my rock and my biggest supporter. I really wanted her to be there to see me graduate so I decided to accelerate my studies.”
A day before her final exam, Lanu was told that her Mum probably only had a few hours to live. She and her family were able to spend time at her bedside but the next day she faced an agonising decision to choose between waiting for the outcome of her mother’s prognosis at home or missing an exam that would mean delaying her graduation. She chose the exam knowing that’s what her mother would have wanted.
It turned out to be the right decision. Her mum managed to hold on for a few more months to see Lanu graduate with a LLB and a BA majoring in Sociology and minoring in Pacific Studies. More recently she has completed a Masters in Law specialising in international law.
“Even though my mum is no longer with us I owe her so much. She believed in me when I didn’t even see anything in myself,” says Lanu. “I truly owe it all to her.”
In her final year at university, Lanu became a tuākana tutor, a programme that pairs up high achieving Māori and Pasifika students with their peers to mentor them in their studies.
“The experience connected me with many Pasifika students who were overcoming enormous barriers and personal struggles and led me to join MATES – a New Zealand-wide mentoring and tutoring education scheme.”
It’s not every day that you receive an email from a former US President, but in 2019 Lanu says she was stunned to receive such an email from Barack Obama and his wife Michelle advising her that she had been selected as one of seven young leaders to represent New Zealand and Tonga at its leadership forum in Malaysia – all expenses paid!
“I remember initially thinking it must be spam but soon found out it was genuine. I had just finished reading Michelle Obama’s book and thought it would be so amazing to meet her in person, never for a moment thinking it would actually happen.”
But it did and now Lanu has the ultimate coveted photo chatting to the former First Lady, to prove it.
She says the experience only came about because of learning earlier to deal with failure.
“I am naturally very competitive and so ‘losing’ or getting rejected for anything would hit me hard.
“What I’ve come to learn is that failure is just a part of the journey and not the final
Take 10 podcast: Lanu Faletau and Andrew Patterson; Modelling and Advocating for Pacifica Success: From Tonga to Obama Leader
University of Auckland 40 Under 40: Influencer Lanu Faletau’s tells her story migrating from Tonga to representing New Zealand and Tonga at an Obama Foundation leader summit and her passion for overcoming barriers to better Pacifica representation.