I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan PhD, Dr. Buriata Eti Tofinga | “Be daring and strategic in pursuing a graduate degree”
Buriata Eti Tofinga | University of the South Pacific | PhD in Management and Public Administration
Of I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan descent, Buriata Eti Tofinga grew up in Bikenibeu, a small village on the island of Tarawa in Kiribati. After completing her undergraduate degree at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, she pursued a Masters degree at University of Sydney and a PhD from the University of the South Pacific. She now lives in Kuala Lumpur and works as a Lecturer at Monash University where she teaches and conducts research in the field of management and entrepreneurship. She hopes to see more Pacific Islander scholars pursuing careers in academia, because Pacific Islander representation in leadership matters.
Tell us about your background and where you grew up.
I grew up in Bikenibeu, a small village on the remote island of Tarawa in Kiribati. Both of my parents are of I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan descent. My father is a retired marine engineer and my late mother was a nurse and midwife at a local hospital on the island. I have a biological sister and brother, and one adopted brother who are all older than me, and two younger brothers from my stepmother.
What motivated you to get your undergraduate and graduate degrees?
I was just a 19 year old girl who spent her childhood and teenage life on a remote island, so I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with an undergraduate degree in business and commerce. Getting a scholarship, being independent and studying abroad were my main motivations at first.
During my final year of undergraduate studies, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, so I left my studies and went home to be with her. We spent a year living in a hospital until she passed away. She knew that she was getting weaker each day. She wasn’t happy with my decision to walk out on my studies, so she encouraged me to go back to finish my degree. A year after she passed away, I went back to study, graduated and secured a job with the Kiribati government.
I worked with small businesses, local and foreign companies and gained interest in business consulting work. This experience motivated me to apply to a Master degree program at the University of Sydney Business School, and I got accepted with an Australian government scholarship.
While studying in Australia, I discovered my passion for social entrepreneurship research after doing work with social enterprises under the supervision of the late Dr Richard Seymour. He was one of the early scholars who published work in this emerging field in Australia back in 2010. I was also amongst the first cohort of Master students to undertake a course in social entrepreneurship when it was first introduced at the University of Sydney Business School.
I remember when I got accepted into a PhD program, one of the completing candidates warned me of the difficulties oh PhD work. However, I still went on to do it and was willing to work hard to conduct this important research in the Pacific. I was even more motivated to proceed once I secured supervisors and mentors who were committed to work with me on this project.
I thank my parents for instilling in me the value of hard work and education from a young age. My siblings and I learned from our mother’s tough love. Whenever we wanted something, our mother would remind us to work hard for it.
My father did not have a chance to finish high school properly so he taught himself. He would read every book, learn and work hard to become the best in his profession. He inspired me and made me realize that I did not have any excuses to avoid studying especially when I had opportunities and family support. Opportunities to undertake a Master and PhD study don’t come to everyone, so I did not take these opportunities for granted.
By the time I got a PhD scholarship, I was a strong-headed and self-motivated person. I was driven by a belief that when you work hard, you will see results. Anyone who is willing to work hard regardless of their circumstances has the potential to excel.
Pursuing a graduate degree can be expensive. How did you pay for your higher education?
I was the recipient of the New Zealand Development Scholarship, Australian Leadership Award Scholarship and a PhD Regional Scholarship. My tuition, living expenses, airfare, and other relevant expenses throughout my university education abroad were paid via these scholarships.
However during my PhD program, I still had to find ways to make ends meet. Some people don’t understand that many PhD students face financial difficulties. These qualified students give up full-time paid employment for a 4 year PhD position which often pays a stipend less than their full-time salary.
Sometimes scholarships are not sufficient to cover the expenses of dependents, and if you are from the Pacific, there are also social obligations to pay for. At times I would try to meet the costs of research, cost of living and social obligations from my own pocket. I am very grateful for the financial support of my family, especially my father and older brother.
You conducted your PhD research on social entrepreneurship in small Pacific islands. What have you learned?
In 2014, leaders of small island developing states from around the world acknowledged to promote the social entrepreneurship of small medium enterprises in order to achieve a sustainable and inclusive development. However our Pacific leaders do not have a strong understanding of what social entrepreneurship is and how it translates to the context of small island developing states in the region.
Much understanding of social entrepreneurship is interpreted from the perspective of western developed countries, dominated by US, UK and European countries. This western perspective did not consider the distinct and unique context of Pacific island countries. My PhD research project tried to close this knowledge gap by conceptualizing forms of social entrepreneurship practices that are embedded in the context of small island developing states in the Pacific.
Social entrepreneurship, adopted by socially oriented organizations, is a practice of creating social and community benefit through market processes. These organizations include cooperatives, non-profit ventures, indigenous businesses and community-based enterprises.
Researchers established that the practice of social entrepreneurship in organizations is influenced by the country’s evolving local context and institutional landscape – laws, regulations, norms, cultural values and beliefs. For example in Fiji and Kiribati, social entrepreneurship involves the integration of changing market practices with unique indigenous knowledge and specific communal practices.
To ensure that social entrepreneurship is enacted in a relevant, effective and culturally appropriate manner, it is important for governments and stakeholders to understand what forms of social entrepreneurship practices really matter to the Pacific people and need to be supported in the Pacific.
You’ve had an inspiring academic career. Can you tell us about life in academia?
I was offered an academic position at the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia shortly after completing my PhD study and teaching at the University of the South Pacific. Monash University is one of the top universities in the world, and so getting an academic position at this University is a big deal for a Pacific island girl who aspired to be an established researcher and professor. It also means I have access to the best resources and facilities for conducting research.
The academic recruitment process is often highly competitive. After an online interview, I was flown to Malaysia for a face-to-face interview, and was asked to conduct a lecture on a topic of my choice. At the end of the day, the school was happy to offer me the position and gave me ample time to consider. For me, I had my family in Kiribati to consult first because accepting the offer would mean I have to live in Malaysia.
It’s been a year since I accepted this position and the responsibility to lead a teaching team as a Chief Examiner in delivering a capstone unit for the Bachelor of Business and Commerce program. Currently I teach students who come from Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Myanmar, Korea, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. I also have responsibilities such as supervising PhD research, sitting in advisory and working committees, mentoring student teams for Business Case Competition and chairing a review panel for Honours student research proposal presentations.
I recently received a seed grant from Monash University Malaysia to fund my current research project. Internal seed grant application processes are competitive and few research projects get selected to receive funding. As a principal researcher, I lead a small research team in investigating the challenges and issues faced by Malaysian female micro-entrepreneurs who operate ventures in the informal economy. I anticipated this project will also complement my previous research work in social entrepreneurship which has been published in peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings.
What advice would you give to Pacific Islanders preparing for university?
To all the young Pacific Islanders who are not sure what to do or gain from a degree: Be daring and strategic in pursuing a graduate degree. Give yourself time to put things in perspective. Consider trying new things and experiences. Challenge yourself by exploring the unknown. Don’t confine your learning horizons to discussions in lecture halls and classrooms or experiments in laboratories. Travel to new places. Step out of your comfort zone. Do not be scared.
If Pacific Islander scholars want to learn more about careers in academia, how can they reach you?
I enjoy mentoring younger generations, especially students who are interested in academia. If you need a mentor, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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