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When Pasifika students feel tokenised, it's no wonder there's a lack of Pasifika professors

 A new study points out just five Pasifika professors and deans are employed at New Zealand universities. This lack of representation trickles down to Pasifika students where university often leaves them feeling alienated, unsupported and tokenised, writes PhD student Lana Lopesi. 

Avoiding being asked to tackle a university’s diversity problems, as a ‘diverse’ student in a university, is like being unvaccinated and trying to escape the current measles outbreak in Auckland. You think you’ve succeeded and then before long, it gets you.

You find yourself locked in a grey room on the 7th floor of some 90s era building with stale pastries and instant coffee being put before you and your other ‘diverse’ mates as payment for releasing the trauma of being you in an unforgiving institution.

I've spent seven of the past ten years in two Auckland universities, so forgive my cynicism. I am Samoan and a woman, so I tick two of the university’s diversity boxes, a third if you include being a mother. My first university experience was at the University of Auckland where I gained a Bachelor of Fine Arts (honours); three years later I went back to student life at the Auckland University of Technology as a Masters of Philosophy student where I am now a doctoral candidate.

Earlier in my student life, I would have participated in a diversity hui/wānanga/talanoa the way they would have hoped – grateful to be there and exercising delightful model minority behaviour. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting diversity and equity expert who invited me to this latest hui, I’m seven years deep in a colonial system driven by ego, and my patience has worn a bit thin.

I was planning to play nice, but while I was eating my pastries, papers with patronising questions about diversity and inclusion niggled the back of my neck: “What is diversity?” Are we really at that Basic Becky stage of the conversation? I asked myself, knowing that asking a group of ‘diverse’ people what diversity is, means that we are very much at that stage. I was the lone Pacific voice tasked with sharing the Pacific experiences of the student body across our entire faculty. If only I had a penny for every time I’d been here.

A few weeks before the hui, we had a shared lunch with Māori and Pacific students at all levels, as well some trusted staff from the school. The lunch was called by the undergraduate students as a result of feeling unsupported in their current degree programmes. I was astounded by their resilience as they went around the circle and told story after story of stereotyping, bias, assumption and essentially, racism. It ranged from people switching their language to seem more ‘gangster’ to a young male student, to undervaluing students’ culturally specific concepts, knowledge and aesthetics by prioritising Western art history.

Perhaps most disturbing though, was that when committed students took time out to care for elders or younger siblings, they were given ‘advice’ that they should withdraw from the programme and just set up their own studio at home. This actually resulted in one student withdrawing from the programme.

But, we have hope! What has traditionally been Pacific students feeling isolated, lonely and often gas lit in their institutions is now a published paper backed by research. Sereana Naepi’s Why Isn’t My Professor Pasifika? A snapshot of the academic workforce in New Zealand universities, is sister-research to the paper, Why Isn’t My Professor Māori? A snapshot of the academic workforce in New Zealand universities. Naepi looks at eight universities across the country to establish that Pasifika represent only 1.7% of the academic workforce in New Zealand.

Related articles: Māori and Pasifika scholars remain severely under-represented in NZ universities | Finally, a TV series that reflects intelligent young brown people – and foretells Ihumātao

While the results of the paper may be shocking to some, for those within the university having your experience backed by data comes at somewhat of a relief. The paper argues that “it is New Zealand universities’ structural commitment to exclusion that produces low numbers of Pasifika people in academic positions and calls for further investigation into how universities can shift their own structures to better engage Pasifika peoples in realising their vision for higher education in New Zealand.”

Despite the very public commitments that our country’s universities have made to the Pacific community, Naepi writes, “universities can express a commitment to diversity while simultaneously working against diversity.” Ain’t that the truth. Beneath that commitment however, universities continue to reproduce and benefit from colonial ideologies “where the production of knowledge depends on reproducing a monocultural knowledge system that is firmly anchored in Western understandings of the world” – something fervently critiqued by scholars here and globally, a movement which Pacific scholars (and students) are a part of. And while some progress is being made, Naepi highlights that “universities are still filtering what Pacific knowledge is acceptable and also deciding how to use the knowledge, with a tendency to co-opt as opposed to meaningfully engage with the knowledge.”

When the research was released, TVNZ’s John Campbell asked Naepi, what does it mean for Pasifika students at universities to not see themselves there? Well, I can tell you that it sends a pretty strong message that we’re not that important. It also turns your university experience into a battleground where you have to fight for your way of knowing to be legitimised by Pākehā teaching staff. Non-Pākehā bodies become “space invaders.” It means that the issues felt by the academic staff in Naepi’s research filter down to the students, and before the students even get to the stage of being able to dream about tenure in an ivory tower, they’re out the door.

Ten years ago, in my own undergrad, I was told by a lecturer that I was going to ‘make it’ because I was an Islander and Pacific art was having a ‘moment’. I also remember trying not to cry in class when a Pākehā classmate made a film where he and his friends ate KFC on a faux tapa cloth before they all wiped the fried chicken grease off their hands and faces onto it. Instead of soothing myself in the foetal position, I learned how to play the brown card early. And because there were no Pacific staff who could meet Pacific knowledge with any rigour, no one has ever found out.

While in theory all I should be concerned with is my own study load, I find myself playing a role that others played for me then – providing mentorship to undergraduate students, not because anyone is paid to, but because we see our communities struggling. It’s this invisible labour which the research shows “is not valued by the institution".

We have networks which exist underground, with roots that spread beyond university loyalties. We have secret kava clubs, closed reading groups and Facebook chats. Pacific students survive university in spite of the system, not because of it. But how great would it be to get to the point where our Pacific students and academic staff alike are actually thriving?

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