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Source: Massey University

Nursing graduate Catherine Tu’akalau.

When Catherine Tu’akalau graduates this week, it will be another study milestone, but not the end of her academic journey. The registered nurse will be conferred with her Postgraduate Diploma in Nursing, but is already partway through her next degree. Her aim is to become New Zealand’s first Pacific nurse practitioner focused on child health. And to do that, she needs her master’s degree. 

Catherine says she’s come to terms with graduating in the middle of a pandemic.

“I’m quite lucky that I walked the stage for my undergrad degree and I’m actually waiting for my master’s to do it again,” she says. “If I was graduating with my master’s this year and I couldn’t walk that stage, I would definitely be gutted.”

Throughout the COVID-19 lockdown, the mother of an active toddler juggled work as a paediatric nurse for the Hutt Valley District Health Board, while studying with her family at home 24/7. 

“It was quite a worrying time, my husband was off work for the four weeks and my work was crazy, as you can imagine. My postgrad studies were the last thing I was thinking about, but I must say, my course coordinator checked in with me regularly, extended assignment deadlines, and told me to focus on my family. I was quite lucky.”

The dream: Being a nurse practitioner working in the community 

Catherine has three more papers to complete her master’s and is looking forward to the day she can roll up her sleeves and get to work as a nurse practitioner in her community. The extra qualifications will allow her to provide medical advice, prescribe medications and make referrals to specialists. 

“Working in a hospital like I do now means providing what we call secondary care. Kids come in with conditions that are preventable and so I feel, as a nurse practitioner, I could make a difference out in the community.

“I will be able to help people when they are seeking primary health care and hopefully prevent them from needing hospital care. I’m really passionate about my Pacific community and I want to start turning our health statistics around.”

Of Samoan and Tongan descent, Catherine has already proven her value to her people. Earlier this year she was deployed to Samoa, alongside 14 other nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and clinical specialists, to help respond to the country’s measles epidemic.

“To be given the opportunity to go back to the motherland and share my knowledge, and to work alongside Samoan nurses, was a humbling experience,” she says.

Inspiring other young Pacific students

Catherine is sharing her graduation story to inspire young Pacific students wondering if they should tackle tertiary study.

“I’d tell them, ‘If you have a dream, you can do it. And in doing that, you can pay your parents back for all the sacrifices they have made for you.’ 

“I come from a family where sacrifice has been our backbone and we believe sacrifice leads to success. That’s my story. My parents worked three or four jobs just to enable me and my siblings to go to school with a packed lunch,” she says.

“My undergraduate degree was a conjoint health science and nursing degree. I had two degrees so I could give one each to my parents – that’s why I did a conjoint. Next time, my master’s is going to my daughter.”

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