Golf and political science, not a common combination, but it’s one that worked for Fai Tongdethsri. Fai was a Sir Edmund Hillary scholar at the University of Waikato for eight years as she studied for three degrees.
She is now working as a policy analyst at the Ministry for the Environment.
Fai left high school in Hamilton at the end of year 12 with a 0.8 golf handicap and knowing she wanted to do university study. Her family suggested political science and Fai was hooked from the start. “And the more I learned about the discipline, the more it aligned with what I wanted to do,” she says.
With her golfing talent and good academic grades, Fai was awarded a Sir Edmund Hillary Scholarship. “I felt really fortunate to be a Hillary scholar. The programme supported me in many ways. It’s not always easy to balance high-performance sport with academic study. It requires flexibility on both sides. Despite the challenges I faced, Hillary Scholarship staff always encouraged me to achieve my goals.”
Hillary scholars are supported by specialist staff, including High Performance Student Scholarship Manager Greg O’Carroll who keeps a sharp eye on scholars’ progress. Fai says Greg was easy to talk to about what she wanted to achieve and how the scholarship could help her get there. “He really provided guidance and belief in whatever I did.”
She kept up her golf, placing many national and Waikato regional competitions, including a fifth in the New Zealand women’s stroke play championships, and representing New Zealand in a trans-Tasman series.
The Hillary programme also encourages students to take on leadership roles, give back to the community and to have high, achievable goals, which Fai says helped her to make some good connections, and gave her the confidence to take action when she felt she needed to. During her study years she led the Postgraduate Student Association on campus and volunteered for the Red Cross.
Her leadership skills were further acknowledged when she was awarded a Step Higher Award, presented each year to a select group of students who demonstrate commitment to the scholarship programme by continually meeting the requirements of the scholarship. In particular, applicants must demonstrate leadership excellence, defined as ‘engaging others to strive for shared goals that positively impact the community’.
Step Higher recipients travel to Nepal, in the footsteps of Sir Ed. Students are expected to raise funds for their trip and contribute in some way to communities in the Himalayas. Fai did a golf fundraiser, raising nearly $2000 for people in villages in the Solumkhumbu region.
She still plays golf, but her major focus is her new job which ties back nicely to her doctoral study. “My PhD was on climate change adaptation policy in Thailand—that’s where I’m from originally—and policy implications for sustainable development, and it’s a topic that has relevance around the world,” Fai says.
“I’ve always been interested in the environment, and our protection of it. At the time I started my PhD, there wasn't much public interest or understanding of the climate change issues. But now it’s front and centre. Adaptation, how we address and prepare for the impacts of climate change is really important.”
While eight years straight may seem like a long-time to spend at university, completing three degrees in quick succession—bachelor’s, master’s and PhD—worked well for Fai. “I was well supported by the Hillary programme, I lived at home and could come and go to uni as I pleased, and I had two supervisors who backed me all the way – Professor Priya Kurian and Dr Patrick Barrett. They stayed with me for eight years, and I was grateful for their guidance and encouragement. And thank goodness they didn’t get sick of me!”
Fai says she graduated equipped with the tools for critical analysis, an important aspect of her current job. “I’m also enjoying the complexity of the project I’m working on—developing a new long-term waste strategy for Aotearoa, New Zealand.
“It has its challenges, including understanding all the government processes and bureaucracy, as well as collating and compromising on ambitious ideas.”
But challenges are something Fai is used to, and the Hillary Scholarship and the University of Waikato have helped prepare her well for what lies ahead in her new career.