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My name is Dexter Stanley-Tauvao. I am proud to be Samoan. I have Tongan, German, Dutch, and Chinese heritage. However, I grew up mostly observing and taking part in Samoan culture and customs (although I am a fluent German speaker). My parents split when I was very young, and I grew up with my mother’s family. I come from the villages Vailoa-Faleata (grandmother) and Taga i Savai’i (grandfather). I know that my father was born in Vaitogi, American Samoa, my paternal grandfather is from Ne’iafu, and my grandmother is of Tongan and Papua New Guinean descent. I was born in Lower Hutt, Wellington, so I am also a “Kiwi-born Samoan.”
That last label comes with certain expectations and stereotypes. In New Zealand, I’m expected to do well at rugby or in music, but not much else. My parents are assumed to work in a factory or as cleaners. The thing is, I am a rugby loving music major, and yes my mum did work as a cleaner, and grandpa was a wharfie in the ’80s.
I acknowledge the privilege that I’ve grown up with though. My mother and her siblings were all educated here in New Zealand. I know many students who are also the first in their families to be at university, to graduate. In the home we spoke both Samoan and English. For some families, one language is sacrificed for the other. I didn’t grow up having to support my family financially or otherwise; my brother did and still does. Many Pasifika students have to do this either alongside studying or instead of studying. I’ve been fortunate to have had this freedom compared to other Pasifika students — being allowed to move out and work for my own interests instead of for the interests of my family is definitely not a given in our culture, and is not often the case.
I’m entering my fifth year of study here at Victoria. I have finished a conjoint BMus/BA majoring in Jazz Performance and German respectively, as well as a Graduate Certificate in TESOL. This year I’m doing Honours in BMus. I’ve been living, studying, and working in the city for the past two years, and am planning on studying further into Master’s, and at some point travelling the world either studying or working. I think as a student I’ve been fairly “successful.” In the context of Pasifika students in tertiary education, I might be perceived as a rarity. However, in the context of my family, my achievements are quite ordinary.
I’m not the first in my family to go to university and get a degree — my mum and aunty have done that already, and they both became English teachers in South Korea. My grandparents met as teachers back home in Samoa. I have cousins who, as musicians, have toured internationally, either with their own work or playing alongside major international artists. I have cousins and uncles who have played international rugby and NFL around the world. Other family members and are doing well for themselves as lawyers, or church ministers, building communities and influencing them for the better. At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, these academic and professional achievements feel more or less normal to me. I do feel a little pressure to live up to the family legacy, but also I think that achieving at these levels shouldn’t feel so unique and surprising.
However, my “success” is often framed as new, or groundbreaking. Perhaps it’s because I’m the first in my generation to study at university, or because I’m doing better than what is typically expected of a brown boy. But there are plenty of Pasifika people who have completed doctorates or are working around the world — making it big-time. I may be one of the few current students in my specific situation right now, but it’s not like we as a people haven’t been at this academic level before. This isn’t new.
Why is it that when people hear me speak English, they’re surprised at how well spoken I am? Why do people look at me funny if I walk by dressed in a suit, even when everyone else on the street is dressed the same? The majority of people that hear about my “successes” are genuinely happy for me but their appreciation often makes it sound like I’m breaking barriers and should be made a special example of: Look at this Pacific Island boy, he’s doing well!
On one hand, I am proud to represent my people wherever I can. I love my heritage and know for sure that I wouldn’t be the person I am today were I raised in any other way. But I’ve also just been an average student. I went to university. I learned things. I did well at those things. There were necessary sacrifices along the way of time, energy, a social life, etc. But I was just doing what was required of me — nothing special. There aren’t many of us doing what I do, granted, but sometimes I feel like being put on a pedestal hinders what I think or at least hope our main goal as a people is — to see Pasifika success as a normality.
For so long there’s been the mindset of “prove you can match it with the white man,” or “you can do as they do.” I think this has been a drawn out and well-battered declaration from colonisation: “the white man thinks you’re dumb, you can’t make it.”
Just this morning I was listening to a first year Māori-Samoan vent about a fellow anthropology student who said to her, get this, “are you on a hardship scholarship? That’s the only way Samoans get in here is with those hardship scholarships.” This reminds me of when I copped a bit of flack from my friends when, back in high school, I was awarded a Victoria Achiever Scholarship, a scholarship available for “Māori students, Pacific students, students with disabilities, students from decile 1–3 schools, and students who can demonstrate financial hardship.” While the Excellence Scholarship was in place for anyone that achieved NCEA Level Two with Excellence, the Achiever Scholarship only required a Merit Endorsement. It was a strange feeling, having been given an award while having performed at a level lower than the other students who were receiving their scholarships.
“Aren’t those scholarships racist?”
“Maybe I should claim that 1/64th Māori in me and get a scholarship like that.”
On the one hand I think, how are we supposed to get past the stereotypes and snide thoughts if our standards are lower than theirs? However, I also recognise that these programs and projects have been put in place to help increase our numbers here — which is fantastic. The scholarships and grants are an attempt for equity in an institution that has historically and systematically excluded Pacific people (and other minority groups). So we have a lot of catching up to do. This is a great step toward our goal of normality, but eventually we’re going to have to take these scaffolds away — we’ve got to have the same standards and goal posts as everyone else.
Of course there are so many factors that mean this is definitely not the case: inequality, poverty, socioeconomic prejudice, and attitudes. But I also feel that the best way to promote the normality of Pasifika success is to treat it as such. I don’t mean to disrespect those who see my successes as an inspiration for our people — if I can inspire anyone to work hard for themselves, it is an honour — and for the time being, someone in my position may be a bit of a standout.
Just getting to university is celebrated by our people. I remember the joy in my grandma’s face when she found out I was going to university. It would have been a reason to celebrate because that was the primary reason why she and my grandfather moved here in the late ’70s — a better life, education, and set of opportunities for their children. I don’t want to take away from that at all. But I hope for the day when people in my situation aren’t celebrated as especially unique or incredible, where Pasifika success is commonplace and not something to be surprised about.
But when someone asks me what it means to be a successful Pasifika student here at Victoria University, it brings with it a raft of thoughts and feelings. I am blessed and very fortunate to be in the position I am in, but I don’t want to be seen as an outlier or statistical anomaly. I appreciate that in this point in time, I may be an exception to the norm. But I want to work towards changing the norm. Our norm.