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Auckland University students dominate Pacific Youth Awards

19 December 2013

Auckland University students dominate Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Awards

Pacific students from the University of Auckland have dominated the Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Awards for the fourth consecutive year, winning four of the seven awards.

The recipients are Ann-Helen Rasmussen (Faculty of Education) for Leadership; Mary Tiumalu (Arts and Law) for Inspiration; Aaron Unasa (Fine Arts) for Creativity; and Reina Vaai (Arts and Law) for Community Development.

More than 100 young Pacific people applied for the awards, which were established in 2010 to inspire young Pacific people to reach their full potential.

Ann-Helen Rasmussen
Ann-Helen Rasmussen credits the support of her parents and six brothers and sisters for her winning of the Leadership Award.

The 23-year-old from Glen Eden, a Samoan-New Zealander, will graduate next May with a Bachelor of Education degree from the University’s Faculty of Education. She was the top-achieving Pasifika student at the end of her last year (2013).

“It’s very much to do with the support networks that I have and my beautiful parents who have always supported me. My mum and dad are a big part of my life,” she says. “I have been very much blessed.”

Ann-Helen mentors individual students through the Tuakana-Tenia programme and also helped initiate group sessions where she stressed the importance of work, study, church, sport and family life balance.

She is an Auckland netball representative, the 2013 captain of the Rifles premier team, and a member of the Northern Mystics team which competed in the ANZ trans-Tasman netball competition.

Ann-Helen intends to use her scholarship award to do post-graduate study at the University of Auckland to examine factors that cause Pasifika underachievement in education.

She would like to find effective ways of helping teachers target students’ strengths and passions so they can reach their full potential and she plans to become a primary school teacher at the end of her studies.

“That’s where my passion lies, at the grass roots, so I am definitely going to get into a classroom at some stage.”

Mary Tiumalu
Mary’s drive to work hard and help others is linked with her upbringing – both her parents lived through struggles and she feels she breathes their stories.

The eldest in her Samoan family, her mother Turu came to New Zealand at the age of 13 to continue her education.

“It was very hard for her to leave her family in Samoa and she had to work very hard when she got to New Zealand,” Mary (22) says.

Turu met her husband Tauave when he came to New Zealand and they settled in Massey, raising four children – son Jeremy and daughters Elaine, Nora and Mary.

“They were very pro-active in making things better for themselves – it was their dream to achieve a better life,” Mary says. “They passed this dream on to me and they always encouraged me to do my best and do something I’m happy with.”

Mary loves to give to others and, along with two colleagues, mentors Pacific Island students at her old school, Auckland Girls’ Grammar School (AGGS) through a programme called PolyCation.

“We launched the programme this year and it’s hugely successful,” she says. “We want to do more to bridge the gap between the school and parents, the school and students, and students and parents.

“We’re using the Pasifika Parents’ network and looking at other ways to get more information out there.

“Our goal is to implant the programme into many schools and offer this mentoring programme to Pasifika students all over Auckland.”

Mary says whole families are involved in the programme and it requires commitment. “It’s holistic, focussing on cultural awareness, spiritual wellbeing and academic achievement.

“I’ve seen great progress in students’ confidence and self-esteem. A lot of people doubt themselves and their abilities but with encouragement they can be inspired to work harder.

“This year, so many people I’ve helped are reaching their goals it makes me scream with excitement on the inside.”

Next year, Mary is co-president of the Pacific Island Law Students’ Association, which seeks to empower and serve Pasifika students and celebrate the diversity within the Law School.

Through PILSA, she helped set up a community-based project TULA’I (Together Using Law Against Injustice) and she is involved with Law in Schools, a project which examines issues facing young Pasifika people and youth groups and educates them about their fundamental legal rights.

Aaron Unasa
Another award winning student, Aaron Unasa, has compared the experience to making the All Blacks.

Aaron won the Creativity Award, sponsored by Weta Workshop, and picks up an internship at the special effects studio.

“The buzz started straight away, I was really excited, but it didn’t really kick in until the ceremony started,” he says.

The 22 year-old Kingsland resident is of Samoan and Cook Islands heritage.

A 2013 graduate of the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, Aaron’s chosen genre is sculpture, and his series of works, Wear with Pride, won the Best Visual Communication Award at Elam in June this year.

Aaron was invited to show his work at the Tautai Tertiary Exhibition 2012 and the Return to Sender exhibition in April 2013.

He also works with arts collective The Roots, which aims to inspire and empower younger generations through arts-based community initiatives.

His contribution ranges from mentoring Pacific arts students to curating an exhibition for the collective.

An internship at Weta will help him marry his interest and skill set in sculpture with his passion for film.

Aaron plans to travel to Wellington and start his internship at Weta in February next year. He is looking forward to the trip even more with the recent announcement that the three Avatar sequels will be filmed in New Zealand.

“I am a huge fan of all the things they do so when I saw the news about Avatar I was really excited, it makes me want to go there now.”

Reina Vaai
Reina, the daughter of Atinae Vaai and Imelda Masoe, is from a high achieving Manurewa family – brother Didier has a law degree from Waikato University and older sister Angela has a degree in law and history from the University of Auckland. Younger sister Taute is at Baradene College with ambitions to become an engineer.

“We all know that we are really lucky to have the opportunities we have and we need to make the most of them,” says Reina. “Our parents worked so hard to send us to Baradene – so by working hard ourselves, we acknowledge that hardship and show appreciation for what we have.”

Reina talks about “the struggle of being rooted in our culture without being restricted by it”.

“I will always have a pull back to Samoa and I will go back there and help in the community. I’m very passionate about it, I may go back there to live and work,” she explains.

Reina recently worked in the office of Samoa’s Attorney General and made the most of the opportunity by setting up a voluntary project called Readers’ Revolution and taking 1000 books with her to distribute among small villages.

She is interested in family law and is an aspiring writer, photographer and documentary maker with ambitions to make a mini documentary series about young Pacific Island people who have had to struggle.

“Some people wonder why I want to go off and make documentaries when I am studying law, but I see the two as being complementary,” she says.

“I have always been interested in people and my passion for helping others has grown - law has opened my eyes to the injustices people face and filmmaking gives me a means of bringing that to people’s attention.”

Reina was the Co-President of the Pacific Island Law Students’ Association (PILSA) in 2012 where she was involved in outreach programmes which encouraged Pacific Island students from low decile schools to attend university and study law.

She is a mentor for Mangere students through a programme called Pacific Power Up and is proud that many of the people she has helped have gone to university and are doing well.

Among other activities, Reina is a youth leader in her church and has volunteered with the St Vincent de Paul Society, working with primary schools, women’s refuge and the City Mission.


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