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Source: Eastern Institute of Technology – Tairāwhiti

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In New Zealand, Sunethra has discovered a passion for horticulture.

Change can be tough and scary. Sunethra Mahawatta can tell you a thing or two about it. The 40-year-old EIT student has lived in three different continents. But even more remarkable are the 180-degree career changes that she performed along the way.

Sunethra grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She was an academic child, excelled at school and developed a passion for the Japanese language and piano. When she completed high school, she was selected to study Japanese in a government university. However, the university was far away and she also planned on having children with her husband, so Sunethra turned down the prestigious opportunity.

During the following years she had to perfect her multitasking skills. She had a son and a daughter, now 18 and 16 years old, but didn’t let having small children stop her from teaching Japanese and also completing a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Social Science.

When her husband, an engineer, was offered a job in Dubai in 2006, the family set out for a new adventure in the Middle East. After months of trying to find the right job, Sunethra was offered a teaching role in her children’s school. Everything seemed to be falling into place, but this settled feeling did not last long.

Three years later it was back to the start when her husband accepted a job offer in Tripoli, Libya. Then in 2011, during the Arab Spring and Libyan civil war, the family was evacuated back to Sri Lanka. Within a few months, they packed their bags again to move to Qatar. At that time Sunethra felt like they had to finally settle. “Our kids had attended nine different schools. We simply needed to take roots.”

In 2015, the family got permanent residency status in New Zealand. Sunethra intended to find a teaching role but worked at Watties and at Turners and Growers before deciding to change her career for good. “Honestly, this was biggest challenge. We had to pay our mortgage, so I couldn’t wait any longer to get a job as a teacher.”

Her EIT journey started in 2016 with a free level 3 fruit production short course. “I had never been on an orchard before but I discovered an interest that I never thought I would have. Although science is not my strong suit, I understand horticulture.”

After she passed her level 3 study, she landed a full-time permanent contract at Mr Apple where she has been working ever since – now supervising Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) teams in harvest, thinning and pruning, crop spraying, codling moth surveying and weed spraying. “When I demonstrate to the workers how to do certain things in the orchard, my teaching background comes in handy,” Sunethra smiles.

Sunethra will never forget all those rocky beginnings of the past. The key to success, however, always remained the same. “You have to start small, give it all and work your way up.” 

MIL OSI