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Source: Massey University

Four new Pasifika academic promotions (from top left) are Associate Professors Siautu Alefaio, Tracie Mafile’o, Natasha Tassell-Matamua and (below) Jodie Hunter.

Empowering Pasifika youth through teaching mathematics from a cultural perspective and bringing a Pasifika and a Māori lens to Western traditions of psychology are among the ground-breaking academic achievements of Pasifika staff recently promoted to associate professors. 

Mathematics education researcher Associate Professor Jodie Hunter (Institute of Education), and psychologist Associate Professor Siautu Alefaio (School of Psychology) are among the four Pasifika staff recently promoted – resulting a significant boost to the number of Pasifika staff at associate professor level.  

The two others are Associate Professor Tracie Mafile’o and Associate Professor Natasha Tassell-Matamua – Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Makea kei Rarotonga. Dr Mafile’o is Associate Dean – Pacific and lectures in the School of Social Work in the College of Health. Dr Tassell-Matamua is a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Her research specialisation is in indigenous psychology and exceptional human experiences (such as Near-Death Experiences).  

They are among 24 Massey staff members promoted to associate professor, along with 12 who became professors at the start of this year. The latest round of promotions also saw an unprecedented number of senior Māori academic promotions announced at Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa, including two new Māori professors and seven associate professors.  

Professor Tasa Havea, Dean Pacific Students Success, says Massey is now seen as; “leading the equity drive not only for the Māori but also for the Pacific staff and students.” 

There are now six associate professors and three professors in Massey’s Pasifika staff. 

Professor Tasa Havea, Dean – Pacific Student Success.

Cultural and community cues

Reflecting on the drive, sacrifices and challenges on the path to their academic elevation, Dr Hunter and Dr Alefaio say they are strongly influenced and inspired by their families and communities and share a deep desire to help create a more equitable society that recognizes their cultural values. 

“My key motivation has been wanting a more equitable and socially just education system for Pasifika children and families. I also want to highlight that mathematics is part of Pasifika culture,” says Dr Hunter. Collaborating with her mathematician mother Professor Bobbie Hunter, she has spear-headed an innovative, research-based and culturally attuned approach to teaching mathematics that has gained international acclaim as well as several million in Ministry of Education funding, resulting in a dramatic improvement in student achievement across schools with a higher proportion of Pasifika students. 

Rewriting the academic script from a Pacific-indigenous worldview is a key motivation for Dr Alefaio, of Samoan heritage. She was among three of ten annual Rutherford Discover Fellowships awarded to Massey academic staff last year and the first Samoan female scholar awarded the prestigious $800,000 fellowship. Her project is titled: Redefining the humanitarian landscape: Pacific-diaspora disaster resilience. 

For Dr Mafile’o, it was her father, the late Mohetau (Joe) Mafile’o, who provided a huge motivating force. “He stowed away on a ship to come to New Zealand in the late 1960s, with little education, but provided so many opportunities and encouragement to my siblings and I to achieve in education,” she says. “I always enjoyed being a student and as an academic my job is to keep learning and also to facilitate learning environments for others. I believe that academia has a responsibility to bring benefits for communities.” 

Dr Tassell-Matamua’s initial academic motivation was wanting to make a change in the world. “Now, I think the main motivation is for me and my tamarikiand also being able to support, teach, and learn from students who are now on their journey in academia – especially Māori and Pasifika students,” she says.

‘The struggle is real’ – challenges

“I have grown up living with my feet in both worlds with a Cook Island mother and Pākehā father,” says Dr Hunter. “The challenge for me as an academic has been in publishing my work in international mathematics education journals where reviewers are not aware or knowledgeable about Pasifika values and contexts. 

“I think this has been better since last year with the BLM [Black Lives Matter] protests and more attention paid to issues of equity. I have a journal article publication coming out shortly which problematizes the journal reviewing process and argues that it disadvantages those from minority cultures.”

Dr Alefaio references an infamous saying in South Auckland: ‘The struggle is real.’ “That pretty much sums it up for me. My struggle as a Pacific academic is that I don’t just research and write about our communities, I ‘live it’. We don’t just stand back and empathise with our Pacific students, staff or communities of research, we live out experiences of responsibility to family, church and community – whether it be through time, finances or other means.   

“Funerals, weddings, significant milestones, church openings are everyday occurrences balanced within the confines of academic expectations such as publications. When struggles are shared and you’ve got the capacity to help, you reach into your pocket and pull out what you can and give it, no accolades necessary, no telling the whole academic community of your do-good deeds, just getting on and continuing with the next thing because that is how real the struggle is.” 

Working in an academic environment that does not always understand or acknowledge knowledge systems and ways of being that may not conform to ‘traditional Western’ understandings” is one of the key challenges for Dr Tassell-Matamua 

A positive [outcome] of such challenges is that I think I’ve learnt some resilience, gained some strength, learned how to allow my voice to be heard a bit better as a wahine who is both Māori and Pacific, become more compassionate, but importantly recognized that there is an obligation to ensure the path is a little easier for other young Māori and Pacific woman.” 

How can things be improved for Pasifika scholars? 

“I think that there is still work to be done but that we are making progress,” says Dr Hunter. “For example, I have been appointed to Associate Dean Pasifika with two colleagues for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, however, I think if this was genuinely valued – as other leadership areas are – that there would be financial contributions for taking this leadership role. I’m glad that we have broadened promotion criteria but there is still a lot of ‘hidden’ service work that we do as Pasifika staff members.” 

And to address the financial barriers for Pasifika scholars, she suggests we could grow our number of Pasifika scholars in the education sector by providing more scholarships that match what individuals would earn in educational workplaces. “This is important given the family responsibilities of many Pasifika people. I also think that having Pasifika role models and mentors is helpful for empowerment and to encourage more Pasifika scholars.” 

Dr Alefaio wants to see more Pasifika representation around decision-making tables in the University and “more ‘passing of the mic’ by non-Pasifika academics to Pasifika academics to lead, and clearer pathways to understand the academic career journey and how it impacts real-world solutions.” 

Unconscious bias and institutional racism in academic institutions are issues that Dr Mafile’o says still need to be addressed “to dislodge the barriers preventing Pasifika scholars from progressing within academia.” 

Career highlights

A major career turning point for Dr Hunter was connecting her work in early algebra to her Cook Island heritage. “I managed to do a PhD in this area without seeing any connection and then was visiting my grandma who makes tivaevae (Cook Island quilts) and suddenly I ‘saw’ the linear growing patterns in the design she was sewing.  

“Seeing children’s excitement when they see their culture reflected in classroom mathematics classes is always a highlight and recently reading the interview transcripts where children talked about how proud they were to be Pasifika and how their teachers were using problems that connected to their lives out of school is awesome,” she says. 

For Dr Alefaiocrossing the stage at Monash University [in Melbourne] when graduating with a PhD while her late mother was still alive was a defining moment, as well as gaining the Rutherford Fellowship last year and seeing our Pacific postgraduate population in psychology grow from zero to seven doctoral students and three masters level students. I can now count them on both hands – yay!” 

Creating and establishing a Centre for Indigenous Psychologies last year is one of Dr Tassell-Matamua’s career high points. She’s thrilled to have supervised PhD and master’s students, who are now both colleagues working alongside her in the centre. 

Research for real-world problems

Research tethered to the needs and interests of their respective communities is important to the four women. Dr Hunter has two big projects currently on the go. “One is focused on Pasifika funds of knowledge and how teachers can draw on this in the classroom,” she explains. “We are giving children and their families camerasand they take photos and videos of activities or artefacts at home or in the community that they can see mathematics in.” 

Following interviews with children about their photos, and meetings with the parents, she works with teachers to design mathematical tasks which authentically draw on the contexts from the children’s photographs. The second project is looking at teacher fidelity to pedagogical practices advocated in the model she and Professor Hunter have devised, called ‘Developing Mathematical Inquiry Communities’. 

Her promotion, she hopes, enables her to “be a good role model for our people and show how we can succeed while adhering to our values. I am immensely lucky to have the family support that I have and always strive to work in a way that helps other Pasifika people succeed.

Nurturing networks

Dr Alefaio has a range of projects underway, including a school-based podcast at Roscommon School in South Auckland partnering with QuakeCore and Massey’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research focused on building community resilience as well as Health Council Research (HRCfunded project on caring for Pacific elders, and Marsden project on the Living Wage with a Pacific perspective.

She says her promotion is “a tribute to my late mother Pepe Matautu Alefaio who was a pioneer in establishing Pacific Island language nests now called Aoga Amata (language pre-schools) throughout Aotearoa/New Zealand, and my father, retired Presbyterian Minister Rev Simatavai Alefaio.

Dr Mafile’o recently led a team to review Tokelau health services delivery, including the patient referral scheme to New Zealand, and is currently undertaking a project for a government department to develop a Pacific cultural competencies framework for people working with children. 

Dr Tassell-Matamua feels her promotion is important for the wider community. It’s good for other Pacific and Māori to see that there are people in these positions, as it makes the institution seem a little less daunting.