Scholarship supports future Pacific Island doctors
18 April 2023
Medical students Cecilia Koloamatangi and Frances Vehikite are on a mission to improve the health outcomes of their communities, while also increasing Pacific representation in the health sector.
The fourth-year students, both of whom are New Zealand-born Tongans, are two of the 2022 recipients of the John and Rose Dunn Scholarship for Pacific Island Medical Students.
“There are no better people to really treat or help your own people than your own,” explains Cecilia.
The 21-year-old says she had an interest in medicine ever since she first saw a stethoscope as a young child and thought “that’s pretty cool, I want a job that uses that”.
The defining moment that inspired her to pursue a path in medicine, however, came a number of years later when her grandfather was hospitalised. After seeing the actions of a Tongan nurse who went out of her way to care for her grandfather – staying after her shift ended to spend time with him and helping with extra tasks such as interpreting – Cecilia says she witnessed first-hand just how important it is to have healthcare workers from one’s own community.
“She didn’t even know our family at all,” recalls Cecilia. “I think the love she had for our [Tongan] community and our people kind of inspired me to come to that pathway of health.”
Frances, 29, says that although she had a fascination with medicine from a young age, her desire to become a doctor was influenced by her experience attending medical appointments with her parents when they had just arrived in New Zealand. Seeing how confusing and overwhelming the healthcare system can be for those members of our community facing language or cultural barriers, Frances realised the impact a familiar face could have on patients.
“It’s just like once [patients] see a doctor or a healthcare worker looks like them, they’re more comfortable to open up,” she says.
I’d really love to take my dad home and to be able to work in the communities that he grew up in back in Tonga because I know healthcare isn’t amazing back there. It’d be really nice to go back to the people and communities that raised me and my family and contribute there.
Although both women have yet to decide exactly what direction they will take with their medical studies, Cecilia says her long-term dream is to one day return to Tonga and practise medicine in the islands.
“I’d really love to take my dad home and to be able to work in the communities that he grew up in back in Tonga because I know healthcare isn’t amazing back there,” she says. “It’d be really nice to go back to the people and communities that raised me and my family and contribute there.”
The scholarship is funded by philanthropists John and Rose Dunn. John is of Cook Island ancestry, through his great-great-grandmother, and is the founder of Endoscopy Auckland and Laparoscopy Auckland. In 1990, he was also the first New Zealand surgeon to perform laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Knowing the pressures of medical school first-hand, he hopes the financial support the scholarship provides will play a role in boosting the number of Pacific doctors by helping more students complete their studies.
“If you look at the stats, it’s pretty obvious that we need to increase the number of Pasifika doctors who can potentially care for their people,” he says, adding that “for people to really get in and make a difference they need to be able to speak the language – literally and figuratively”.
Both Cecilia and Frances say long hours studying combined with various family commitments leave little opportunity for part-time work during the semester, meaning the extra financial support has been a massive help.
“We’re truly grateful for the help that the scholarship has given,” says Frances. “It’s taken a load off.”
Cecilia echoes that sentiment, saying that by helping to alleviate some of the financial stress on her and her family, the support has allowed her to focus more on her studies.
For John and Rose, the scholarship is just one way they are giving back. Rose is a great supporter of Pacific artists while for almost two decades now John, who is an honorary medical adviser to the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, has travelled to Rarotonga once a year to spend a week performing dozens of surgeries on needy patients. As well as being committed to improving the health outcomes of Cook Islanders, he was also a committee member of the University’s Campaign For All Our Futures and currently serves as a trustee of the Medical and Health Sciences Foundation.
John recently met Cecilia and Frances in person, along with a number of other 2022 scholarship recipients, to find out more about their studies and to give them some words of encouragement.
“It’s a good feeling when you have someone who’s backing you,” says Cecilia.
“It’s kind of like his belief in us is showing us that we are the future generation of Pasifika doctors.”
Helen Borne | Communications Manager
Alumni Relations and Development