Universities around the country are under intense financial pressure, with several undertaking large-scale job cuts. Others haven’t made official announcements of restructures but are certainly tightening their belts.
Petra Satele is a PhD student and assistant lecturer at Massey University. She’s concerned about cuts to Pacific initiatives intended to help Pacific students, which she says will have a significant impact while only achieving a small financial saving. Here she is, speaking to Teuila Fuatai.
I was always interested in psychology because my dad Michael Satele is a psychologist. He was one of the first male Sāmoan registered psychologists in New Zealand.
I considered studying at the University of Auckland because Dad went there, and so did my siblings. I’m one of seven and pretty much everyone stayed in Auckland and went to Auckland uni.
But then I met Dr Siautu Alefaio-Tugia.
Siautu, like my dad, is a Sāmoan psychologist. She’s also an associate professor at the School of Psychology at Massey University.
It was Dad’s idea for me to meet with Siautu. All the Sāmoan psychologists know each other, and Dad said I should talk to her about my options.
That was in 2015, and by the next year, I was studying at Massey and Siautu was one of my mentors. She’s now my PhD supervisor.
I was inspired by how Siautu challenged the lens that psychology used — which is overwhelmingly Pālagi and, more often than not, based on research and frameworks from North America and Europe. She brought in Indigenous views, with a focus on cultural psychology. I’d never really seen that before, and it certainly wasn’t what I’d experienced in my undergraduate studies.
I realised that Massey, and working with Siautu, was exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have to put Pacific people into a small box, and I’d be able to challenge a lot of assumptions that failed to recognise what it meant to be Sāmoan, to be Pacific, and to have a Pacific worldview.
When I started at Massey, I was really excited to be at a university that I felt valued Pacific voices and worldviews.
On campus, we had initiatives like lunches and get-togethers, where we met other Pacific students and staff. I remember how special it was when I first started. In some of my classes, I was the only Pacific student, while in others, there were just a few of us. When I went to the lunches, I was with students and staff who shared similar values and worldviews to me. I didn’t have to explain how hard I was finding uni because we were all going through the same experiences.
Massey also sponsored the Tongan stage at Polyfest in Auckland. We had a tent where the university’s Pacific and recruitment teams met high school students who were there to perform or watch.
And Massey had key staff who supported Pacific students, including a Pacific librarian — an expert in Pacific literature who was also a welcome face for students and staff in a very Pālagi space.
Then, at graduation, we had the Pacific graduation celebration. These were separate from the formal graduation ceremonies, and they allowed graduates, their families and supporters, along with Pacific staff, to celebrate together. Our cultures and the collective effort of our families were front and centre. These celebrations were the highlight of every graduation season.
As a Pacific student and staff member, these were the things that gave me a sense of belonging at Massey. They’re Pacific-specific initiatives that showed the university valued us. More importantly, they’re some of the most visible ways the university honoured its commitment to reducing and minimising the historical, educational and systemic barriers to success for Pacific people.
Through these initiatives, the university said: “Hey, we understand the system isn’t designed for you, your culture or your worldview. We get there’s barriers to being here and succeeding. We know you’re underserved in the education system, and in institutions like this. Here’re some of the things we can do to even the playing field for you and future generations of Pacific students.”
But what happens when these initiatives, and that visible support from the institution, no longer exists? What does it say about our place, our voices, and our value at Massey?
It started in August 2021 when Massey cut its $20,000 sponsorship of the Tongan stage at Polyfest. I was working as a student advisor at the Office of Pacific Student Success, which co-ordinates support and services for Pacific students at Massey. The news came via email as we were getting ready for the next festival. We were totally shocked.
Around the same time, our on-campus initiatives like lunches and get-togethers were put under the spotlight. Our leadership team for the Office of Pacific Student Success, led by the Dean Pacific, Professor Palatasa Havea, told us the $10,000 budget wasn’t available anymore. Covid had created significant funding shortfalls across the university, so our budget — like those of other parts of the institution — was being cut.
It then rolled into staff numbers. In the past year, five Pacific staff have left, and we’ve been told by Massey that none of them will be replaced. Our Pacific librarian left for the University of Otago. Four staff from the Office of Pacific Student Success have also departed, and at least one has moved to another university. These departures only add to the underrepresentation of Pacific staff at the university.
For me, the real tipping point was the scrapping of the Pacific graduation celebration and the lack of transparency around that decision. I only found out it wasn’t an option when I went to register for the November 2022 graduation season for my master’s degree.
I was asked to select between a general graduation ceremony, a Māori one, or a Pacific one. It was the first I’d heard of separate formalities. I found it strange because it seemed like the university was segregating graduates. To me, it made no sense to have the formal process grouped by ethnic group rather than by college.
There was to be no Pacific celebration, which, unlike the formal graduation ceremony, had a different purpose to walking across a stage and receiving a certificate. Graduates weren’t separated from their families and supporters, and we were able to reflect together on our university journeys. Anyone who wanted to speak, sing or perform could do so. It was a celebration and acknowledgement of all our villages that got us through our studies — something the formal graduation ceremony isn’t set up to do.
For months, we sent emails and requests to senior university leaders trying to get clarity. Often, they went unanswered, or the response was vague.
Eventually, in February this year, a staff email from the university leadership confirmed the cancellation of the Pacific celebration. It also said the university wouldn’t be continuing with the separate Pacific graduation ceremony. Of course, that was well after the graduations in November.
Instead, Massey was “returning ownership . . . to the community, the students and the student association.” This means the students would have to organise and fund anything like that ourselves. I saw it as another sign the university didn’t understand our journey as Pacific at Massey. Like a lot of Pacific students, I work, study, and have lots of family and community commitments. Organising and fundraising for a graduation celebration simply isn’t realistic.
I do understand that Massey, like other universities in Aotearoa, is under a lot of financial pressure. But when you look at the big picture, the Pacific initiatives I’ve highlighted are so minor in the context of the millions that need to be saved. More importantly, they make a huge difference to Pacific staff and students.
It’s why I’m critical of Massey for the lack of transparency and respect in the way they’ve treated us, especially over such small amounts of money.
One of the most unacceptable things to me is that the university still hasn’t officially told students that the Pacific graduation celebration no longer exists.
Staff and students like me who worked in the Office of Pacific Student Success were constantly being asked about a celebration. One student even asked me at church whether I knew what was going on for the recent May graduation season. When we tried to clarify things on Facebook, we were told to delete the post by the university’s senior leadership.
We weren’t properly consulted on the changes, our voices weren’t represented at the decision-making table, and we didn’t get to explain why investment in Pacific-specific initiatives means much more than setting aside a budget for lunches or graduation celebrations.
For example, Massey’s presence at Polyfest was a crucial way for us to reach high school students. I was so privileged that my dad went to university because it made me realise that path was a very real option for me too. That simply isn’t the norm for so many Pacific students. Often, we’re the first in our family to get to university. It’s why the start of that journey can happen at places like Polyfest where high school students are able to engage with uni staff.
Similarly, the on-campus initiatives were a source of support for our students and staff. It’s how we found security and belonging in a space where many of us are outsiders. And then the Pacific graduation celebration wrapped everything together. All the challenges, support and hard work over the years came together in a beautiful and truly Pacific way of celebrating and giving thanks — in, and with, our communities.
Ultimately, I believe the lack of accountability and effective process at Massey shows a shift in the value that the university places on Pacific. I would’ve understood if Massey had proposed budget cuts to these initiatives but still retained them in a reduced form, especially if those changes came with genuine consultation and information around the cost-saving requirements. But to eliminate them entirely without a decent explanation tells me it’s not just about saving money.
I think it all goes back to how well those at the top truly understand what our voices and worldviews bring, and how a properly inclusive university operates — even during financial crises and other obstacles. And I believe the exodus of Pacific staff is related to this.
As Pacific, we just don’t feel valued at Massey anymore. It seems that after a run of good years, we’re moving backwards. And all the progress that had been made by those who came before me for equity and inclusion of Pacific is set to be undermined and undone.
Petra Satele is of Sāmoan heritage from the villages of Faleapuna and Vailuutai. She is a PhD student and assistant lecturer in psychology at Massey University, where she also works as coordinator of NIUPATCH, a Pacific research unit focused on bridging the gap between academia and practice among resilient Pacific communities. Her PhD research examines the disaster response of Pacific churches, and challenges the narrative of vulnerability often placed on Pacific communities while exploring resilience through a Pacific lens.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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