After living in the island nation of Tokelau for nine years, Asi Halaleva-Pasilio (34) felt something had to change. Life spent in a country of three scattered atolls and less than two thousand inhabitants seemed to slip away, every day resembling the other.
“You know, there isn`t that much to do out there.”
Halaleva-Pasilio, brought up in the Tonga Islands and schooled in New Zealand, had migrated to the Tokelau Islands after getting married in 1993.
She filed for and was granted a scholarship to the University of South Pacific. In January 2002 Halaleva-Pasilio first took a ship to the Samoan Islands (which is the site of the nearest airport), and continued her journey by air to Suva, the largest town of the Fiji Islands. A month later, the husband and daughter of Halaleva-Pasilio followed her.
Several students of University of South Pacific (USP) suggest that the university has more nationalities among its students than any other university in the world. USP is owned by a joint board of twelve Pacific nations: Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Cook Islands, Nauru, Niue, Tuvalu and Tokelau Islands. In addition, the university is a tempting location for both degree and exchange students from for example Northern America and Asia.
As the islands and villages even among the countries themselves may vary significantly, the amount of different cultures in the university is amazing. Walking through the campus, one may imagine travelling through the South Pacific, as one passes Micronesians with Afros as well as blond-haired Polynesians, people from the Tonga Islands clad in black clothes to mourn their dead king, and Fiji Indians in saris.
“There are over 300 languages spoken in the campus”, explains John Tuhaika (25), the chairman of the student board and a native of the Solomon Islands.
Students often have their own prejudices as to what kind of people live in which country. Often these stereotypes are connected with the nations` administrative past. Natives of the Solomon Islands are considered calm and collected as their colonizing fathers the English, whereas people of Nauru are believed to behave more like Australians do. “If you ever hear a loud noise, one could bet on there being Cook Islanders present,” Tuhaika says.
Approximately 9 000 people study in the USP main campus in Fiji. Two thirds of them are natives to the island. Other countries are represented more or less in comparison to their population.
But how does everything work when students from an area over three times the size of Europe and with different customs and historical pasts cram together under the same roof?
“Sometimes there are disputes between nationalities – people get drunk and have a fight or something. But usually this involves first year students.”
A common “Pacific” identity is formed quite fast, when people study the same classes and spend their free time together doing the things students usually do: playing rugby and netball, drinking beer in house parties and sneaking into dormitories of the opposite sex.
One unifying factor is also the language of study, English.
To study in the University of South Pacific costs approximately 7 000 euros per year. Only a few can afford this. That is why most students have a scholarship granted by either the government of their own country or by some other, foreign country supporting education. These scholarships cover all the costs of studying as well as one trip to the student`s home country each year. Students eligible for scholarships are chosen based on previous grades as well as work experience in the field of study, if any. Scholarships are granted to gain a Bachelor`s degree; for a Master`s one must apply again.
The competition for a place in the University is hard in most countries of the region. The year Tuhaika applied, only 200 people were accepted among the 10 000 applicants in the Solomon Islands. In Tokelau the competition was not as heavy in 2002. There were less than ten applicants, and in addition to Halaleva-Pasilio, one other student gained a scholarship.
Hard work or not, one would expect that Halaleva-Pasilio got special treatment in her home country. After all, she is soon one of the most educated citizens of the country along with a few other Master`s graduates.
“When I go home, people bring me food. However, I think that is more because of the fact that I have been away for so long, not because of my education. We do not have a similar system of chiefs than in the other Pacific countries, so our community is not that hierarchical.”
People graduating from the USP have to return to their home countries and work for the government for a year or two, depending on the country. Tuhaika, soon about to graduate in the field of commerce, is dreaming of a career in the United Nations. After his work obligation is over in the Solomon Islands, he would like to work with Pacific Issues in the UN.
Halaleva-Pasilio would like to begin her Doctor`s thesis.
“But that is dependent on foreign grants.” Halaleva-Pasilio might one day have the only PhD in Tokelau!
She laughs and shakes her head.
“If I do complete my thesis one day, I won`t return to Tokelau. I`d be over-educated for their labour market.”
Freshman Year by Mail
The republic of Kiribati, formed out of 33 coral islands, does not have any Internet connections outside the main atoll Tarawa. The outer islands have a few phones per island at most – or only a radio. Yet it is possible to study in a university even in the most distant atolls.
“At the beginning of each semester, the student receives a package in the mail. This package includes all the material necessary as well as a schedule informing the students of dates by which the essays are due. At the end of each semester the local principal supervises the final exams. Answers are then sent to Tarawa and further on to Fiji to be graded”, explains Ueantabo Kackenzie, the Manager of the Kiribati University Centre.
The University of South Pacific boasts its system of correspondence courses being one of the most developed in the whole world. In every USP country a campus offers a broad selection of courses. These campuses connect with their own satellite to Fiji, and a part of the classes given are sent via this satellite link for example as videoconferences.
Students can complete their freshman year in their home country in all subjects. Some study fields also offer a part of the second year via mail and satellite. After this, however, one must continue his or her studies in Fiji, Vanuatu (Law School) or Samoa (Agriculture and Forestry).
The benefit of this type of studying by mail is that students can save money on their education. Several people are also trying to get a scholarship by beginning their studies in their native country on their own cost.