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KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i says she finds it hard to believe how far she's come. Photo/University of Auckland

The tension – and honour – of being the first Pacific Island woman Rhodes Scholar

The first woman of Pacific Island descent to become a Rhodes Scholar, KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i, will use her scholarship, established by a racist colonialist, to examine colonisation.

The thought of a Pacific Island woman from Avondale strolling down the halls of Oxford, might have Cecil Rhodes, a racist colonialist, spinning in his grave.

For 23-year-old KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i, who is the first-ever Pacific woman in the world to become a University of Oxford Rhodes Scholar, the irony is not lost on her. When she finishes her honours degree at the University of Auckland, she will head to the UK in 2020 to take up the scholarship, established by Cecil Rhodes in 1902.

Rhodes, who believed in British imperialism, played a lead role in establishing what we know as contemporary South Africa and arguably, laid the groundwork for apartheid. Initially, his scholarship only went to men, until 1976. Ma’ia’i joins a class of scholars – particularly those from colonised nations, like Kenyan Rhodes Scholar Nanjala Nyabola – who are actively questioning the legacy of the award and what it means to be at Oxford.

As a woman of Sāmoan descent, it is hard to rationalise, she says. “Cecil Rhodes was a racist, colonial tyrant who facilitated and perpetuated the subjugation of countless indigenous people.”

“The ideologies that enabled Cecil’s brand of colonisation are incredibly similar, if not the same, as the ideologies that enabled the colonisation of our people and land in the Pacific. It’s a tension that I will probably never work through and it will most likely always sit uncomfortably with me.”

But Oxford, of course, is an institution with phenomenal power and influence, and Ma’ia’i hopes she can use the sway of being a Rhodes Scholar to further push Pacific issues into the global sphere. She plans to do a DPhil (the Oxford equivalent of a PhD) in International Development, which will look at colonialism and development in the Pacific in order to establish if or when colonisation became known as “development” and if or how they are different.

She says Oxford is a place that has a profound impact on the Pacific, through its continued development research on the region, but there is an absence of Pacific voices and research.

“The Pacific-centred research that we do as Pacific people is often viewed as quaint ‘less-than’ inquiries that will never be as academically rigorous, important or ground-breaking as other areas of research.”

Ma’ia’i is driven by structural inequities faced by Pacific people in society, education and academia. They’re often kept at the margins by negative stereotyping, which creates barriers for young Pasifika from using their talents and following their passions, she says.

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, second from left, with the three New Zealand Rhodes Scholars for 2020: Isabella Lenihan-Ikin of Victoria University,  KDee Ma'ia'i of University of Auckland and Oliver Pooke of University of Otago. Photo/gg.govt.nz
Many young Pacific people in Aotearoa today, like Ma’ia’i, are descendants of a generation of Pacific elders who took major risks migrating here between the 1960s and 1980s in a search of better education and employment opportunities. Curator Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai wrote that it was the children and grandchildren of that generation – today’s Pacific adults – who were yet to “reap the harvest of their efforts, while at the same time being presented with new challenges to overcome.”

While many inroads have been made by Pacific people, unfortunately, the reality is there is still a lot to be desired. “Pacific people too often encounter closed doors rather than open ones,” says Ma’ia’i.

Pasifika, particularly women, are still far from thriving in 'the land of milk and honey’. Most startling is that Pacific people earn the lowest median income of all ethnic groups: $23,000 per year, according to a report by Pasifika Futures. Working Pacific women are more likely to be carers, early childhood teachers, cleaners, sales reps or assistants, and one in four Housing New Zealand tenants is a Pacific person. Pacific people also experience the highest rates of adult and child obesity, as well as rheumatic fever.

Ma’ia’i is determined to change this narrative. She has spent much time mentoring and tutoring Pacific students during her undergraduate study, and also with children whose parents are incarcerated, through the charity Pillars.

“[I want to] open doors for them and increase the opportunities that the state doesn’t give them."

Her hope is that by studying at Oxford, she will have the opportunity to occupy positions of power, so she might be able to contribute to systemic change.

Pasifika, generally, aren't advancing as quickly as their peers in education – Year 13 Pacific students are less likely to qualify for university entrance, and of all ethnic groups, Pacific people have the smallest proportion with a degree and the largest proportion with no qualification at all.

Mai’ai’i says the scholarship is a chance to show that Pacific people can play the normative academic game – and play it well.

“We have so much more to offer the academy but we aren’t often given the opportunity to. Māori and Pacific students are the first to be denigrated and abused by academic institutions, so by having us in those supposedly prestigious spaces proves them all wrong.”

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

Ma’ia’i’s win, as per all New Zealand Rhodes Scholars, is a significant achievement, not only because she is breaking ground for Pacific people, but because her pathway to Oxford was not without challenges.

Despite coming from a family with a legacy of scholars, including her late grandfather Papa’ali’itele Dr. Semisi Ma’ia’i, the first Sāmoan doctor, and her late aunty Aiono Dr Fanaafi Ma’ia’i, the first Sāmoan to earn a PhD, she calls herself “an unlikely winner.”

She dropped out of Avondale College at the start of her sixth form year to support her family, after a family situation [she prefers to keep the details private] threw her off track. Her grades at school up until that point meant she was on track for a university scholarship, but rather than finishing school the need to support her family took precedence, with no second thought given to any opportunities she might be giving up.

Ma’ia’i helped set up a screen-printing business with her dad and brother, which is still running, and worked there until she felt the pull of wanting something more for herself. At age 20, she applied to the University of Auckland’s Bachelor of Arts programme. But without university entrance, she was declined and instead recommended a foundation course. Taking that up in 2016, the following semester she started her degree, majoring in Politics & International Relations and History. Ma’ia’i finished her undergraduate studies in only two and a half years before moving to the Pacific Studies department for her honours year.

While she will be part of the prestigious Rhodes Scholars Class of 2020, to her family she is still the youngest child and an “unrelenting nuisance”. At intermediate school, she played Counterstrike with the gamer tag ‘Polynesian Princess’. She’s mastered the trick of making average ipu ki (cups of tea) so she won’t get that job for the foreseeable future, and instead is often delegated the role of washing dishes to stop her from tormenting the family with tea towel flicks. The family girl loves spending time at home, cooking together with her dad and going the Avondale Markets every Sunday. Beyond that, she’s dedicated and committed to both her family and her studies, and as her dad would say, goes “hundies” on everything she does.

Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa, the first Pacific Rhodes Scholar and the Pro Vice Chancellor Pacific at the University of Auckland, says the university and the community of Pacific researchers, scholars and teachers are immensely proud of Ma’ia’i’s achievement and it’s a mark of their commitment to excellence and its support of Pacific academic achievement that all four Pacific Rhodes scholars have been Auckland alumni.

“My dream is that Pacific Rhodes Scholars – and New Zealand’s Rhodes Scholars more generally – should represent the diversity of New Zealand’s young people, and that talent comes from across New Zealand and the Pacific. KDee is a sign we’re getting closer.

"After seeing only two Pacific Rhodes Scholars in a hundred years, we have now seen another two in just three years: the task is to keep making sure Pacific people reach their full potential, and seize hold of the opportunities they deserve, but have had trouble getting access to.”

When Ma’ia’i heads to the UK in 2020, she will be following a familiar journey.

“I keep reminding myself of my Aunt Fanaafi. She was the first Samoan person to earn a PhD and did so at UCL [University College London]. There she was, a beautiful, fiery and devoted Pacific woman gracing the streets of London in 1957. Palagis in the UK had never seen anyone like her before and the adjustment for her must have been torturous. She paved the way and did so with grace – I have to do the same.”

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