Tongan Tertiary students rally together during NZ’s lockdown

By Sela Jane HopgoodRNZ Pacific Journalist. This article is republished with permission under Kaniva News partnerships with Radio New Zealand.

There were concerns from directors and teachers over the well-being of their tertiary students from Tonga studying in Auckland during the national lockdown.

However, the students relied on their sense of community through the unease of going through New Zealand’s lockdown away from their family.

The Auckland Institute of Studies, (AIS), has had a partnership with the Tonga Institute of Higher Education, (TIHE), since 2006.

It allows for school leavers from Tonga to study half of their degree in New Zealand with graduates offered a higher entry level to the Tongan workforce.

Tongan graduates from Auckland Institute of Studies. They have come through via the Tonga TIHE (Tonga Institute of Higher Education) pathway.

Tongan graduates from Auckland Institute of Studies. They have come through via the Tonga TIHE (Tonga Institute of Higher Education) pathway. Photo: Supplied

The director of Pacific Studies and Relations, Semisi Taumoepeau, said the concern from the staff came from knowing the Tongan students were still getting used to the New Zealand environment.

“The directors were worried for the students and how they were going to look after themselves on their own and then there are the families back in Tonga who are worrying too for them.

“Because I work closely with the Tongan students, I trusted they would adhere to the rules and behave themselves in their bubbles and support each other,” he said.

For some of these students, this was their first time in New Zealand and living away from their families.

Meliame Tupou came to New Zealand for in 2018 as part of the TIHE pathway to study tourism and management.

Ms Tupou said during the lockdown she had family and friends in Auckland who wanted to visit her to make sure she was well, but were unable to do so due to the government restrictions at the time.

Auckland Institute of Studies.

Auckland Institute of Studies. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Ms Tupou was one of the nine students and the group had a system in place for grocery shopping where they designated one person to shop on behalf of the group.

“Despite the system, it did make it difficult for us when supermarkets had to enforce the rule of two items per family because two items of some foods were not going to feed all nine of us.

“We had to ask our superiors for a letter explaining our living arrangement, so that we could present it to the supermarket owners and be allowed to purchase more than two of certain food items.

With government restrictions easing, the students living in the dormitory have more freedom to go for walks outside of the campus.

Ms Tupou said the security staff at AIS were always checking up on the students and it often reminded her of how her family are back in Tonga.

“The security guard will constantly ask us, what time are you coming back? And reminding us to be back before it gets late, which made us safe knowing they were keeping an eye on us.

Lisiate Fineanganofo arrived in New Zealand for the first-time last year to study a Bachelor of Business.

Mr Fineanganofo said his family became extremely worried for his safety when they heard there was Covid-19 cases in New Zealand.

“My family panicked and wanted me to go stay with relatives during the lockdown.

“AIS reassured us that staying in the dormitory was the safest thing to do during the pandemic and so I decided to stay with my peers. Fortunately, there are no cases in my bubble.

For Veisinia Tonga, she has spent almost seven years working for the Reserve Bank of Tonga.

She was funded by her employer to study a Bachelor of Business at AIS.

Ms Tonga resided at the dormitory during the lockdown and got involved with study group sessions and prayer meetings.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

She said although she missed her family during the lockdown, she was grateful the students that stayed in the dormitory were able to support each other spiritually.

“Every Sunday we gathered together to pray. Each individual had to either lead us in prayer or sing a hymn or share a reading from the bible.

“Christianity is part of the Tongan culture and so it felt as if we were back home every time we met.

“The only funny difference was we had to use the cafeteria as our chapel,” Ms Tonga said.

AIS provided laptops to the students from Tonga who did not have access to one to ensure they were able to fully participate online with their assignments during the lockdown.

Tonga’s Ministry of Education and the Tongan community in Auckland supported the students further with financial contributions.

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