Tongan PhD in Developmental Studies, Faka'iloatonga Taumoefolau | “Remember that college isn’t the only means to a fulfilling life”


Tongan PhD candidate, Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau, shares his academic path throughout the South Pacific, motivations for pursuing graduate degrees and advice for students pursuing higher education.

Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau at Victoria University | 2019

Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau at Victoria University | 2019


Tell us about your background and academic path. 

I was born in Tonga, but my family emigrated to Australia in the early 1990s to accompany my father who was pursuing an undergraduate scholarship. I learned at an early age how to read and write English before Tongan.  

After 4 years in Australia, my mom, 2 siblings and I moved to New Zealand and subsequently returned to Tonga. Transitioning suddenly to an all boys Methodist boarding school, Tupou College, in Tonga was quite the culture shock.

My mother passed away in 2005 and that’s when one aunty took me in, and my siblings were taken by another aunty to New Zealand. At that time, my aunty was working in Fiji, so I ended up doing my undergraduate studies at the University of the South Pacific Laucala Campus. I am thankful to my aunty, Dr Netatua Pelesikoti Taufatofua for giving me that opportunity and taking me under her wing.

After completing my degree in 2008, I went back to Tonga for 2 years and then received an Australia Aid Programme scholarship to do an M.A. in International Affairs at the Australia National University. Following my Master’s degree, I returned to Tonga to work for the Tonga Ministry of Justice as an Interpreter and Liaison Officer. I’ve worked at the Australia High Commission and was a Development Programme Coordinator at the New Zealand High Commission. I am now completing my PhD in Development Studies at Victoria University of Wellington while doing contractual work for the Canada High Commission coordinating funding to five Pacific Island Countries.

What motivated you to pursue your graduate degrees?

I continue to be inspired by the foundation my family aspires towards. I come from a very humble background – raised by a single mum in Tonga. She instilled in me at an early age how important education is but also the values and principles of being a Tongan. Pride comes with humility, determination comes with endurance, and you must know your responsibility amongst the family. The expectations can be overwhelming and quite intimidating with my share of hiccups along the way. However, I am grateful though to be exposed to that level of dedication and work ethic at such an early age.

The degrees have a purpose but for me I am motivated by the memory of my mother and the potential she saw in me. She never got to see that, I just hope I make her and my father proud.

Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau in Kiribati | February 2019

Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau in Kiribati | February 2019

What are some of the highlights of your career?

I look at the work of ‘Epeli Hau’ofa, for example, and see how education has opened doors for what an impact your ideas have on others. So, in that sense doing a degree in itself is rewarding for that reason.

From a purely working sense, the main highlight would be seeing the impact you have on a community. My area is international development and seeing firsthand how assistance and support means to the local communities across Oceania is humbling.      

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

After my PhD, I hope to give back to Tonga and more importantly carry my responsibilities for the family. I’m interested in focusing on developing the region through international development projects.

What advice do you have for students considering higher education?

  • I understand the pressure of getting a degree within the Tongan community and definitely pursuing higher education opens doors, but it is not the only means to a brighter future. Motivation can only drive you so far but be honest to yourself in why you’re considering higher education and for whom.

  • Some of the hardest working people I know never pursued academics and instead focused on looking after their families. I have so much respect for my mother for raising 3 kids on her own. That’s the standard that I hold myself up to. That’s why getting a PhD doesn’t even come close to the incredible work my mother and other family caretakers have done to raise their children. Remember that college isn’t the only means to a fulfilling life. 

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