Aliitasi and her Journey of 1000 Miles

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” is Dr Aliitasi Su’a-Tavila’s favourite quote. It’s what motivated her to face the challenge from a poor student to a PhD and eventually Acting Head of School at Whitireia and WelTec, where her educational journey in New Zealand first started



Born in the village of Gagaifo, Lefaga in Samoa, Aliitasi migrated to New Zealand in the mid-1970s with one goal in her mind, to support her family in Samoa. Within a short period of time she achieved her goals and moved back to Samoa to set up her own small business and invested in a taro plantation.


Unforeseen health circumstances forced Aliitasi to return to New Zealand in 2000. Setting up her young family in New Zealand was a real challenge for Aliitasi, her husband Asosefulu and their young son, Alistein.


Realising the employment changes in New Zealand motivated Aliitasi to return to school. Her belief was that the investment will bring her family long term benefits.


The drawback was that her family struggled during this period. In spite of this, she enrolled the Diploma in Social Work at Whitireia Community Polytechnic which she completed in two years and gained employment with Probation Services. It was there Aliitasi saw the high number of Pacific peoples going through the court system without sufficient knowledge of the system or their rights. She wondered howshe could make a difference to support them.


“My only option was to continue my education to another level despite my promise to my husband that I would not study again,” she says.


Returning to Whitireia, she enrolled in the Bachelor of Social Work degree (BSW), and was part of the first cohort for this degree. At the same time, Aliitasi supported her husband to enrol in the Trades (plumbing) course at Whitireia, so they were both students together.


She completed her BSW degree and was awarded First in Class for her academic achievements. Jean Mitaera, Programme Leader at the time, saw her potential, encouraging her to continue her studies at Victoria University of Wellington to do a Master’s degree.


“While this choice was beyond my dreams, I set another goal for another two years: to complete my Master’s degree”.


She was a recipient of a Ministry of Health (MoH) scholarship to complete her MA degree and, in her final year, was offered a job from Victoria University to support her studies. MoH were satisfied with her academic results and offered her another scholarship for Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Victoria University provided an office for her to work and study as part of her contract.


“I was so overwhelmed, highly motivated and confident to take another step of my educational journey,” says Aliitasi, who then set her fourth goal: to complete her PhD three years.


“Near the end of my study, I was given the opportunity to apply for a Postdoctoral award to continue my research to an international level”.


Aliitasi won a Postdoctoral Fellowship Award from the Health Services Centre, Victoria University of Wellington.


Hard work, financial support through scholarships and taking a ‘one goal at a time’ focus helped Aliitasi through her education journey.


When Aliitasi achieved all her educational goals, she thought of returning to Whitireia. By coincidence, there was a vacancy within the Bachelor of Social Work programme, where she crossed paths again with Jean Mitaera. Aliitasi was appointed Senior Lecturer Research and nominated by her colleagues to the Research & Ethics Committee. She progressed to the role of Programme Manager, Professional Practices and is currently the Acting Head of School, School of Social Services for Whitireia and WelTec.


Aliitasi was the first President, Whitireia branch of PACIFICA established in 2014 and has also held the position of National Vice-President


PACIFICA Inc 2016-2018. Her latest achievement has been her contribution to the newly published Pacific Social Work – Navigating Practice, Policy and Research.


Her husband is now a qualified plumber and their son Alistein is in his first year of studies at Victoria University of Wellington.


“Yes, it was a struggle, just for a time, and it was to benefit my family in the long run,” she recalls. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.


Strengthening staff Pacific capabilities - Whitireia and WelTec


Whitireia Community Polytechnic (Whitireia) and Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec) are two long established polytechnics, widely respected by employers and with excellent Pacific student success rates.


Whitireia and WelTec are now working together to provide the best possible study choices for students in the Wellington region and beyond, with training for staff to boost awareness for how to engage with Pacific students


Jean Mitaera, Chief Advisor Pacific Strategy States “We know that we can strengthen our teaching capabilities, explore meaningful ways to support community development and showcase Pacific success to our students and communities. We want our Pacific students to recognise their potential and to be excited about their possibilities!”


In 2019 Jean has planned three workshops for staff at Whitireia and WelTec. Two workshops titled ‘Pacific Cultural Awareness’ aim to support staff with:


• Strategies for initial engagement with Pacific students


• Awarenesss and understanding of historical events that shape


Pacific peoples relationships with New Zealand


• The diversity of Pacific communities


• Knowing your blind spots – unconscious bias.


The first ‘Pacific Cultural Awareness’ workshop was held at Whitireia (Porirua campus) and there was a high level of staff participation with much positive feedback. A second workshop will be held at WelTec (Petone campus).


In July, Jean will host the Pacific research approaches workshop.


“This workshop is for staff undertaking research and those who teach research in degree programmes,” she informs.


Workshop content includes:


• Pacific epistemologies


• Pacific values based models


• Professional and cultural responsibilities for researchers and participants.


Jean believes, “It’s important that we provide our staff with the information and tools to utilise Pacific resources and to teach Pacific students”.


Co-facilitating all workshops with Jean are Dr Aliitasi Su’a-Tavila and Dr Seini Taufa (Lead Researcher, Moana Research).


Visit and for more information.

This article was first published in issue 73 of SPASIFIK Magazine, for more features, columns, and articles to keep you informed and entertained get the latest issue, out now.