First Associate Dean Pasifika tributes

The passing away of the country's first Associate Dean Pasifika has prompted reflection about the role of universities in promoting equity in education.

Dr Meaola Amituanai-Toloa left a legacy of commitment to promoting Pacific education.

Tributes are being paid to New Zealand’s first Associate Dean Pasifika, Dr Meaola Amituanai-Toloa, who passed away this week.

Dr Amituanai-Toloa was Associate Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre and a Lecturer in the School of Arts, Languages and Literacies at the then Faculty of Education before being made Associate Dean Pasifika in 2008.

Her PhD and research interests were centred on literacy and achievement for Samoan primary school children in bilingual and mainstream education.

Born and educated in Samoa, Meaola Amituanai-Toloa had a career in business and financial analysis before becoming a primary teacher and education researcher. As a dedicated postgraduate student, she completed her masters degree in 18 months and her PhD in just two years while working part-time as an education researcher.
 

She was a passionate, hardworking, resilient, intelligent, kind hearted woman. She inspired many of us - including those of us who were fresh out of high school.

Carmel Sepuloni Minister of Social Development

Dr Amituanai-Toloa believed that the growing diversity of the school population in New Zealand makes it increasingly important to research the best ways to teach students from different ethnic backgrounds – especially Pacific students.

“The Pacific Island population is increasing in New Zealand. Our greatest challenge is to think about teaching in innovative ways to enable these students of today to realise their full potential and participate fully in our country’s future. It is a huge undertaking, and in the establishment of this [Associate Dean] role The University of Auckland has shown it is committed to the challenge,” said Dr Amituanai-Toloa who continued as Associate Dean Pasifika until 2012.

Those who paid tributes included government ministers. The Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni had studied with Meaola at the then Auckland College of Education. "She was a Samoan woman who had raised a family and who struggled with the realities of studying in her more mature years, but she did it so well. She was a passionate, hardworking, resilient, intelligent, kind hearted woman. She inspired many of us - including those of us who were fresh out of high school. She had such an amazing heart for our people but never felt the need to overstate her commitment, instead just got on and did the work with pure intentions."

The Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito Willima Sio commented: "It is such a deep loss to our Pacific community of Aotearoa when we lose one of our pioneers, especially one that was a strong and passionate advocate for Pacific languages."

Dr Meaola Amituanai-Toloa was committed in word and deed to strengthening the faculty’s link to the Pacific communities in Aotearoa and also in the Pacific. She always had the students’ best interests at
heart. She worked tirelessly for their benefit and prioritised support for
them including a considerable investment of her own time.   

Professor Graeme Aitken

Professor Graeme Aitken, the former Dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work said: “Dr Meaola Amituanai-Toloa always had the students’ best interests at heart. She worked tirelessly for their benefit and prioritised support for them including a considerable investment of her own time.

“She was committed in word and deed to strengthening the faculty’s link to the Pacific communities in Aotearoa and also in the Pacific. It was her leadership and generosity that enabled such substantial and practical support for Samoa following the tsunami in 2009. As Dean I always appreciated her compassion, honesty and humility. She took a personal interest in my family, and her own family and community were clearly central to her being.

“She was a quiet but determined leader who put others' needs before hers but who in doing so modelled the Christian service that was such an important part of her life.”

I feel honoured to walk in the path that she has forged as Associate Dean Pasifika.

Jacoba Matapo Associate Dean Pasifika

The current Associate Dean Pasifika, Jacoba Matapo, paid tribute to her predecessor. “I was deeply saddened to learn about Meaola’s passing. Meaola was the first Associate Dean Pasifika in the whole of New Zealand, and in currently occupying this position at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, I feel honoured to walk in the path that she has forged as Associate Dean Pasifika.

"I join my colleagues at the University in mourning the loss, but also celebrating the legacy of Meaola’s life and work. Meaola will be fondly remembered for her research and work in the area of literacy and achievement for Samoan primary school children in bilingual and mainstream education. Her legacy will continue through the works of her children and Pasifika educators across the education sector.

"Ia faamafanafana atu le Agaga o le Atua i le tu’ua ai o le mālō e le tinā o le aiga, le mafutaga mafana ma le tamā, le nofoaalo, le paia ma le mamalu i aiga, o uō ma ē masani.”

Another Associate Dean Pasifika Rae Si'ilata shared these memories: "Malo lava, fa‘afetai lava Meaola, mo le alofa. Meaola was a great role model to Pasifika academics in the faculty. She and I shared personal and professional connections, each working in the Pasifika bilingual/biliteracy space. She had amazing productive capacity while also caring deeply for her students. Meaola was a deep thinker and was able to integrate Pacific metaphors and knowledge systems within her work in the academy, always remaining true to who she was. She was passionate about system change for Pasifika learners while also keeping her great sense of humour. She always took time to talanoa. We had some special times together. Meaola had a strong personal faith and a moral integrity that she enacted in practical ways every day. She was 'clothed with strength and dignity and… spoke words of wisdom… Honour her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.' Though so dearly missed, she has earned her reward. Moe mai ra e hine, moe mai ra. Alofa tele."

Such a loss to her family, and to us of such a pioneer, who blazed many trails in which others have walked.

Toeolesulusulu Associate Professor Damon Salesa Pro Vice Chancellor Pacific, University of Auckland

"Meaola ran her race well," commented her colleague in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, Manutai Leaupepe. “Meaola was an amazing woman of faith, strength and integrity. Her work and service with Pasifika students and students in general, schools, communities, and colleagues as a researcher, scholar, academic and mentor is highly praised."

Senior Lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, Dr Melanaite Taumoefolau commented: “I remember Meaola as a cheerful and happy student... always hard-working and a model for other students. Then later I worked with her for a few weeks when she was Associate Dean Pasifika to change my graduate course Pacific Language Teaching to be co-offered and co-taught by the Faculty of Education. I truly admired her zeal and persistence in that process and unfortunately she had left before our process was completed. But it was an experience where I got to know first-hand her love and support of Samoan language and culture. I value the way in which she supported Pacific languages and our Pacific language courses here at Pacific Studies, and I am still including some of her perceptive writings as reading material for some of my courses. May she rest in God’s peace and love. ‘Ofa lahi, mo e lotu'.”

Ofa lahi, mo e lotu.

Dr Melanaite Taumoefolau Senior Lecturer in Pacific Studies, University of Auckland

Dr Diane Mara, Associate Dean Pasifika 2012 – 2015, paid her tribute: “God bless her and her family for this great loss. I enjoyed our discussions and our friendship as one to another each helping us to co-exist within an institution that challenged us all at every step. It reminds us of the fleeting nature of our lives and the need to treasure in our hearts each and every memory of Meaola and who she was and who she carried with her. Very sad indeed."

Long-time colleague and friend Vaovasamanaia Meripa Toso added this tribute: "She led with a faithful heart always mentoring others to do more for Pasifika and that it was about potentiality and many possibilities.

"As a dear friend, she has always supported me in what I do and has always encouraged me to do more for Pasifika learners. She is deeply missed but she has taught me about now giving up and to be role models for Pasifika learning and teaching. Ia manuia lava lau Malaga Meaola."

Co-ordinator of Samoan Courses at the University of Auckland, Vavo Fetui said it had been a privilege working with Meaola and sharing "her prior knowledge and understanding of her Samoanness through gagana Samoa, Samoan language, and aganu’u Samoa, Samoan culture when she studied Samoan courses in Pacific Studies in the late 1990s. As an advocate of Pacific languages she continued with her PhD research investigating the cognitive value of reading in Samoan at the primary school level. A competent speaker of Samoan herself, hence she values the utility of Pacific languages which is a sustainable measure of an ideal bilingual post-modern scholar.

"Ia faamafanafana atu le Agaga o le Atua i le tu’ua ai o le mālō e le tinā o le aiga, le mafutaga mafana ma le tamā, le nofoaalo, le paia ma le mamalu i aiga, o uō ma ē masani."

Dr Tanya Samu from the School of Critical Studies in Education shared her thoughts. "Death comes to all, but great achievements build great monuments which shall endure until the sun grows cold.

"Meaola’s contributions to the education and development of Pacific peoples, particularly Samoan bilingual education, are great achievements. They are enduring achievements, worthy of being monumentalised.

"And that is our promise to her family. In forms and ways yet to be determined, we will ensure that there is sustained light , and continued recognition of her legacy within the field of Pacific/ Pasifika education."

Dr Meaola Amituanai-Toloa's funeral is being held in Melbourne on Monday.