South Auckland Campus director can't wait to show off more of Tai Tonga

Covid-19 has made it somewhat challenging for South Campus director Rennie Atfield-Douglas to show the community all that the new facility can offer.

Niuean Rennie Atfield-Douglas grew up in Manurewa and is the the director of Te Papa Ako o Tai Tonga (South Auckland Campus)
Niuean Rennie Atfield-Douglas grew up in Manurewa and is the the director of Te Papa Ako o Tai Tonga (South Auckland Campus). Photo: Billy Wong

Rennie Atfield-Douglas took up the role of director of the University's new campus in Manukau in Semester One. UniNews caught up with him to find out about the challenges of 2020 and how his background helps with his role. 

How’s your role as the director of Te Papa Ako o Tai Tonga going?
Let’s just say my work at the South Campus hasn’t turned out quite as I envisioned, with students spending limited time here since we opened in Semester One. We had an official gala opening planned for April which had to be cancelled because of the first lockdown, so now we’re looking ahead to 2021 and having some sort of one-year anniversary celebration.

Where did you grow up?
I’m Niuean and the youngest of six siblings but the only one to be born in New Zealand. The others were born in Niue or Fiji where my parents were studying. I went to Manurewa High School so South Auckland is a special place for me. There are so many good things that come out of the South but that narrative is not always told well. I’m also trying to change the narrative about the University ... to let the community know our approach is genuine and we have a genuine want for the community and its people to be successful and thrive because ultimately that will flow on to positive things for New Zealand.

What did you study?
Both my grandfathers were very strict in terms of education. It was a given that we finished school then went on to further education. I did a Bachelor of Health Sciences but when I finished my degree I realised that field wasn’t for me. If you asked me 20 years ago what I’d be doing, I would have told you I would have been a doctor. But I was only okay at science, probably not as good as I needed to be. I wasn’t listening to myself. I have a natural love of languages and people. One of the things that’s pushed within the Pacific community is that you should become a doctor or a lawyer to serve your community. But there are so many other jobs that allow you to contribute in a productive way.

How did you end up in banking?
While I was studying, I picked up some part-time work as a bank teller, as well as doing work with the Equity Office and the Schools Partnership Office. An opportunity came up to progress with banking and I took it. One of the things I’m very grateful for about my years in banking, is that it taught me how to interact with people. It developed my sense of customer service and also taught me about becoming financially savvy.

It’s Niuean language week 18-24 October, tell us about your heritage.
There are around 30,000 Niueans in New Zealand and most of those are in Auckland. There’s only around 1,700 in Niue. My return to a role at the University was because of my work with an organisation called the Niue Youth Network. I was promoting the Niue language and that’s when I realised I wanted to be working with young people. 

I’m trying to put a human face to our institution so people can actually see, ‘oh, you’re just like me’.

Rennie Atfield-Douglas, director of Te Papa Ako o Tai Tonga University of Auckland

What did you do when you came back to work at the University?
Well after my epiphany, I was lucky enough that my old boss from the Schools Partnership Office was still working there so I approached him as I could see there was a job on his team.

What was the pathway to becoming director of Tai Tonga campus?
Working in the Schools Partnership Office was great because I got to work with young people and travel the country, sharing my love of the University.

Later I moved into a senior advisor role. My banking experience helped me prepare quite analytically for that interview and I produced a few documents looking at efficiencies and cost-effectiveness. I’m not necessarily a person who thinks we should be doing things because we’ve always done them. I like to see the evidence and numbers behind it.

When the South Campus role came up after a few years, I thought I would be really good at it, not least because of my general engagement skills with the community.

Have you been able to engage much?
Not as much as I’d have liked. Covid-19 has created obstacles but I’m still excited at the opportunities out here, it’s just finding the right time to go out to the community and say hello face-to-face and host them on campus.

I want to dispel any myths about studying at Auckland. People see us as the number one and the elite and although that’s a good thing, for some it’s actually off-putting. So I’m trying to put a human face to our institution so people can actually see, ‘oh, you’re just like me’.

What’s the student experience been on campus, in the limited time they’ve had there?
We have around 150 students, mostly Education and Social Work but also Tertiary Foundation Certificate and New Start – they’re primarily students who are heading into the education and social work pathway.

We have a shared facility model and I was a little uncertain how that would pan out, but it’s been a blessing in disguise. Students and staff interact daily in the kitchen space and common area and it seems to have really helped embed the whānau culture we have.

Students are also really happy we finally have our own dedicated space. Previously they shared a space at MIT but they say it’s really different when you know the space is all yours.

How has Tai Tonga helped students in 2020?

What’s become very apparent is that access to the internet and devices is a barrier in students’ homes. The University provided laptops in lockdown and has extended that service until the end of the year.

We’ve opened up the study spaces during the lower levels of lockdown while the campuses have been closed and even had students who usually study in the city come and use the South Campus because they found it beneficial because it was close to home.

We’re also offering some external exam preparation for high-school students, Year 13 students, who have exams coming up. We hope we can give them more confidence to sit the exams because for all university-bound students, they’re important.

Allowing them to come here also serves the purpose of getting them comfortable in a university setting and saying ‘see it’s not as scary as you may think it is’.