27 Oct 2016

Pasifika youth strive to change poor stats

4:42 pm on 27 October 2016

Past recipients of a government award recognising high-achieving Pacific youth are striving to turn around poor socio-economic and education rates for Pasifika in New Zealand.

Mary Tiumalu working with children in Fiji.

Winner of the 2013 inspiration award category Mary Tiumalu has worked in Fiji promoting the rights of children. Photo: Supplied / Mary Tiumalu

The annual Prime Minister's Pacific Youth Awards recognises and rewards high-achieving young Pacific people and is designed to motivate and inspire more.

Since its inception in 2010, awards have been presented in a number of categories including leadership, business and enterprise, science and technology and sports.

This year the awards will give up to $90,000 in tuition or grants to young pacific high achievers.

For many of the recipients the grants are life-changing and have opened up doors for them to gain work experience within the region.

Mary Tiumalu at her graduation celebration.

Mary Tiumalu says young Pasifika should strive to learn skills to help other Pasifika people. Photo: Supplied / Mary Tiumalu

Twenty-five-year-old Mary Tiumalu won the inspirational award category in 2013 and used her grant to work for children's rights in the Pacific.

"I started in Fiji and I worked for a non-government organisation promoting the rights of children and then I did that same sort of thing in Samoa," she said.

"It was definitely eye-opening. But it also, sort of resonated with me because I do come from a very humble family."

"So seeing that and being able to go into the Pacific Islands, you just realise the importance of using your skills to really further pacific peoples wherever you're situated, whether that's in Auckland or in the Pacific Islands."

Mary Tiumalu working with a family in Samoa.

Mary Tiumalu working with a family in Samoa. Photo: Supplied / Mary Tiumalu

She is calling other young people in her community to help change Pasifika statistics.

"If you're really willing to try and change the status quo, put yourself out there," she said.

"Try and get involved in as much as you possibly can to gain the skills necessary to be an effective citizen, to contribute to changing those statistics."

Last year a new science category was introduced in an attempt to encourage more pacific people into the field.

Antony Vavia is a Marine Biology student of Cook Islands and Fijian heritage and said his life has been an adventure since he won the award.

"I've been able to go to the Solomon Islands to study the coastal ecology there where we did a census on substrate sites to assess the coral health, and also looking at Parrot fish abundance," he said.

Antony Vavia identifying different substrate types in Coral in Solomon Islands.

Antony Vavia identifying different substrate types in Coral in Solomon Islands. Photo: Supplied / Antony Vavia

"I also had the opportunity to join an awesome crew in Tonga who are doing research on humpback whale behaviour. It was a really good experience to be able to participate in that."

"I don't - honestly, I can't even think what I'd do without [the award]. I mean, what this year would've been like, I don't even think I want to think about it."

Mr Vavia said that the opportunity to work with locals and researchers in the Pacific region was eye-opening and he wants to go back.

"In the islands there's a lot of marine biodiversity and you know, it's quite abundant there. That's where my interest is - in Pacific Islands and New Zealand, and I really want to promote our Marine waters."

Antony Vavia, a Marine Biology student of Cook Islands and Fijian heritage from south Auckland, won the science category at the Pacific Youth Awards, 2015.

Antony Vavia, Marine Biology student, won the science category at the PM Pacific Youth Awards, 2015 Photo: RNZI / Jamie Tahana

Although recent government figures from the Ministry of Education show a growing number of Pacific people studying at tertiary level, academics have criticised their stagnant achievement rates on social and economic issues.

Pacific people continue to be over-represented among the unemployed, lower-skilled workers and low income earners in New Zealand.

Mr Vavia joined Ms Tiumalu in calling for other young Pasifika to help change those statistics.

"Whenever I think of the statistics, I mean, we gotta be real. It is out there and it's pretty sad,"

"But being able to see these difference, like when I went to the awards and seeing these other people, these other awardees, it was actually quite eye-opening because it does show that we do have the capacity and that there are people out there actually breaking that stereotype."

The Prime Minister's Pacific Youth Awards are currently open for nomination.