As a child, ‘Ana Taulani wanted to be an auto mechanic. By her late teens, the first generation Tongan’s career aspirations changed when she developed a passion for social, cultural and economic justice.
Born in Gisborne and brought up in Katikati in the Bay of Plenty, throughout her life ‘Ana had witnessed inequitable standards of living for Pacific, Māori and other minority groups. She wanted to do something about it.
“To me, equity is living, rather than just surviving,” she says. “I don’t have all the answers but I believe that incremental changes to the status quo are a step in the right direction.”
Personal tragedy coupled with a desire to help others influenced ‘Ana’s decision to pursue a qualification in psychology where she felt she could make a positive change.
The morning of Friday 27 March 2015, is one that ‘Ana will never forget. It was the day her beautiful son, Tevita Ikani Taulani Junior who she had already nicknamed VJ, was stillborn.
“I carried VJ for 9 months and one week,” says ‘Ana. “I heard his heartbeat for the last time on Thursday and his delicate soul left his earthly body at 5.59am the next morning.”
To this day, the exact reason for VJ’s death is unknown.
“My world shattered that day but I kept going. My experiences prior, during and post my son’s passing further fuelled my urge to pursue community psychology,” she says.
‘Ana already had a National Diploma in Computing at Royal Business College and had been studying business at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai) prior to VJ’s passing. She transferred to the University of Waikato in Tauranga and enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Sciences majoring in Psychology and Strategic Management.
‘Ana chose the University of Waikato, in part, for the cultural aspects of its programmes.
“Waikato’s community psychology programme seemed to be more culturally grounded in comparison to other universities in Aotearoa.”
With a reputation for research excellence in psychology and the Tauranga campus close to her family home in Katikati, ‘Ana says Waikato was the best fit for her.
She attended classes during the day and worked nights at a kiwifruit packhouse to make ends meet. When the seasonal work ended, ‘Ana frantically looked for another job and was relieved to find one as an after hours advisor with the Tauranga City Council. Within a few months though, the pressure took a toll and, needing an income, ‘Ana made the difficult decision to take a break from university for a year.
In 2018, ‘Ana returned with a healthier bank balance and positive mindset. She was class representative for several of her papers and helped start a group for Pacific students with the aim of establishing a space that supports them within the University and wider community.
Earlier this month, ‘Ana, the third eldest of six children became the first in her immediate family to graduate with a university degree. On graduation day, she was joined by her parents, brothers, sisters, nephew, and sister-in-law, while other family members tuned in via live stream. She was proud to wear traditional Tongan attire of tupenu, ta'ovala and kofu, which was gifted by her family for the special occasion.
‘Ana said she was equal parts “overwhelmed and proud” to graduate.
“I’ve weathered many storms and wouldn’t have made it this far without a huge amount of support," she says. "My whānau, friends, the whānau leaders within the Te Toka a Tirikawa Māori Support Unit, Waikato Students’ Union in Tauranga and University staff all contributed, both directly and indirectly, to my journey and I can't thank them enough for being part of it.”
Now ‘Ana is studying a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology which is another step in her Waikato University journey to become a fully registered Community Psychologist. She is also the Waikato Uni-Tech Tongan Tertiary Student Association (WUTTSA) representative for Tauranga students.
“My undergraduate years at Waikato equipped me with the tools to continue on to postgraduate studies and reach my career goals,” she says. “I want to encourage more Pacific students to consider university too, to be aspirational and build a strong Pacific community here at the Tauranga campus.”
Her advice to others keen to pursue a path similar to hers is to “follow your heart”.
“As with other aspects of life, it’s not always smooth sailing,” says ‘Ana. “But, if you are passionate and determined, you can overcome any barriers that come your way. Stick with it – it’s worth it!”