When Lincoln University student Serah Pyawa first heard about the Pacific Island Scholars Alumni Network (PISAN) Fono, she was unsure of its relevance for her.
However, following the three-day event facilitated by Pacific Cooperation Foundation (PCF) and hosted at the University of Canterbury (UC), Serah has seen just how pertinent it is, and says she has been “transformed” by the experience.
Originally from Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands, 32-year-old Serah arrived in NZ in February to complete her Postgraduate Diploma in Environmental Management at Lincoln University, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) NZ Scholarship initiative.
After studying Chemistry at undergraduate level in Port Moresby, Serah worked with Exxon Mobil’s first PNG LNG Project, but felt she lacked the correct knowledge and skills, so looked to further her education.
She was fortunate to receive a scholarship to attend Lincoln, where she has great learning advisors, and the use of excellent facilities, she adds.
Fellow NZ Scholars from PNG first alerted Serah about the PISAN Fono at Christchurch, from March 17-19, and encouraged her to go.
“I was a bit reluctant at first as I wasn’t sure of how worthwhile it would be for me to attend the Fono … but that uncertainty changed the moment I stepped onto the marae and we were welcomed by the Maori elders,” Serah says.
NZ Scholars from the Pacific and Timor Leste were invited to attend the PISAN Fono – South, and students from the University of Otago and Lincoln University were hosted at Rehua Marae for the weekend.
“When the Maori elder mentioned how we had all come from different islands and brought our spirits with us, it truly connected with my spirit,” she says.
During the three day Fono, scholars heard from guest speakers, Filifotu (Fotu) Vaai-Tinitali – the Bluesky Country Manager in American Samoa, and Fred Kolgato, an engineer from the Solomon Islands.
Both Fotu and Fred are alumni of the NZ Scholarship initiative and openly shared their experiences with scholars – the challenges they faced before, during and after completing their studies, but also the great boost NZ Scholarships have provided for them in their life and careers.
They also offered advice and tips of how to get through the hard times, the return home and the culture shock of studying in NZ.
Scholars also attended workshops and presented their findings on areas of concern affecting the Pacific region, as outlined by the Pacific Island Forum Communique 2016 – including fisheries; climate change and disaster risk management; disabilities and cervical cancer; West Papua and regional mobility and harmonisation of business practice.
The scholars’ conclusions and ideas will be collaborated with the North Island scholars’ ideas which were presented at the Fono North last weekend.
A “Pacific youth voice” will be presented at the PIF Leaders’ Meeting in Samoa later this year, by two selected scholars – one from each Fono.
Scholars also heard about the benefits of PCF’s Summer Internship initiative, which applications are now open for.
For Serah, the PIF workshops and presentations were the highlight of the Fono as they opened her mind to the various issues affecting the Pacific – not just environmental as has been her focus in the past, she says.
“The guest speakers were also great – I have more confidence about what I am doing after hearing them speak – if they can do it, then so can I.”
After only three days at the Fono, Serah says she feels like she is a different person to when she arrived – more grounded, and braver.
“I am a person who sticks with other PNG people as that is what I know, but this experience has made me want to connect and network more with people from the region, and it has inspired me to travel and apply my knowledge to other Pacific nations to help them with the issues they face.
“I have a broader awareness and Pacific conscious – before it was about me and PNG, now it is about me and the Pacific.”
Visit http://pcf.org.nz/summer-internships/ to download Summer Internship applications.