Fijian PhD, Dr. Sereana Naepi | Researching Pasifika Women in Higher Education
Raised in Aotearoa New Zealand and currently living in British Columbia to finish her PhD, Sereana Naepi talks about her journey through academia, her research findings on the experiences of Pasifika women in academia in the face of sexism and racism, and her thoughts on the designation “Asian Pacific Islander.” Soon returning to Aotearoa to work with young Pacific academics, she hopes to inspire more Pasifika scholars to pursue leadership positions in order to enable meaningful community-oriented change in higher education.
Tell us about your background and where you grew up.
I’m a first-generation student with my mom’s family coming from Fiji. I grew up in Aotearoa in Mount Wellington. At the time, it was a low socio-economic area in East Auckland. I never planned to get my doctorate or end up in these academic spaces. I am now working in Canada and will be returning home in January to be a lecturer at University of Auckland working with young Pasifika academics.
Do you notice low numbers of Pacific people in academia?
It’s crazy to see the lack of Pasifika representation in academia. There are less than 5 Pasifika professors in New Zealand. It’s about time we show the rest of the world what we can do. I’m actually getting ready to publish research on this lack of representation of Pasifika and Māori in leadership positions.
Have you ever experienced racism throughout your academic career?
In high school, I remember my mom checking the box that I was white, since my dad is white. She knew from experience that if she designated me as Pacific, I would be treated differently. Now, I am an alum sitting on my high school’s board of trustees. This board of trustees has tried to pick zoning laws that would stop 40% of out of zone students (mainly brown students) from attending the school. This proposal was in response to one high socio-economic family’s concern of the school being “too brown”. We need to remember that, unfortunately, there’s not just racism in the classroom, but also in leadership positions. I interviewed for an equity position at a research led university and I was unsuccessful but they offered a walk and talk debrief. During the debrief they told me that I was the best for the position but that I would disrupt the homogeneity of the office and that perhaps similar to how they changed clothes for some meetings due to gender expectations I could change how I presented myself. I wanted to point out that the brown doesn’t wash off. I’ve never forgotten that even in spaces where you would think we belong we can be threatening to people.
Tell us about your PhD.
I studied Pasifika women’s experiences working in higher education. I talked to 27 women working in academia, representing close to 200 years of experience working in Aotearoa New Zealand universities. When you hear their stories, you are immediately amazed by their resilience in the face of sexism and racism. The biggest advice I received was staying connected to my community. You need to surround yourself by your community and fill your spirit with your community, especially if you are in a space that doesn’t embrace you. We’re so lucky to have these amazing women who came before us, who work with us, and lay the foundation for us to work in these fields. You know, it’s not a miracle that our people can do research and think critically. It’s in our DNA. Our people needed to do research in order to navigate the seas.
How do you give back to the Pasifika community?
For me, research is a form of service. If we’re going to play this game, we play it in a way that benefits the community. To support students, we need to get people at the front of the classroom who look like us, sound like us, who don’t call us Asian Pacific, who get us and who see that we exist.
Whenever someone asks to talk or collaborate, I jump right on board. When I go back home, I hope to set something up with the Fijian community. There are not many from my hometown who have made it to the PhD level. We need to make sure the educational intervention happens earlier.
What are your thoughts on the designation API or “Asian Pacific Islander”?
API is an economic/military term and economic zone. Historically, “API” was used in a military perspective to designate the zone for all nuclear experiments. It’s also used to designate the trade gateway to Asia.
I find this designation problematic. The “Asian Pacific Islander” designation makes an easy catch all for all Asian and Pacific communities. Lumping Pacific Islanders under the “Asian Pacific Islander” umbrella makes us so invisible, and many times, when organizations use “API”, it feels like false inclusion.
Sometimes it feels like people want to consume our culture but don’t want to include us in strategic conversations that directly affect our lives. It’s the most painful part. They want our men to be sports stars, but they don’t want to engage with us the moment we challenge them and want to fight for issues like representation and equitable access to resources.
What advice do you have for Pasifika scholars preparing for college?
Stay grounded in family and community, because this is not going to be an easy journey. They are the ones who will give you the love and support you need to get through it on those tough days. It was the hardest thing for me to move to Canada. I felt invisible – people literally didn’t even know where I was from.
Reach out to your community. If no one at your college is from your community or understands you, reach out to community members on social media. That’s why I am always open to scholars reaching out to me for support. We are all part of the same global village.
Any words of advice to women who have children while pursuing graduate degrees?
Mainstream academia will say that women can’t start families while pursuing their degrees. I completely disagree. You can find an amazing community of Pacific Islander scholars who will support you and care for your children. If it’s what you want to do, go for it!