A Confident McAulian Woman

Written by Nika Maka
NZ Born of Tongan descent

You are unique, you are smart, you are important – let’s celebrate that

Last night I had the honour of being the guest speaker at my old high school.  When given such a privilege I always try to channel my inner Michelle Obama which isn’t hard because I feel like she is my spirit politician (as opposed to spirit animal).  Anyway, here’s the slice of melon shared last night:

Malo e lelei everyone, firstly want to thank Ms Miles and the staff of McAuley for inviting me to speak at the senior prizing giving tonight. I am totally humbled by the opportunity and I do hope that in between my rambling and stuttering you will be able to take something away that will help you as you continue your journey in this crazy thing called Life.

I am an ex-McAulian, class of ’99 so if you’re a maths guru, you would have figured it out that yes I was here before most of you were even born which makes me feel very, very mature. I am a full NZ-born Tongan, bred in Otahuhu, and am proud to be a past student of McAuley High School.  I am a Chartered Electrical Engineer, and work in construction, mainly out on transport projects like large motorways and highway roads.  For example I deal with streetlights, cctv cameras, red light cameras, traffic lights – if its on the road, needs power and it needs to be controlled, I deal with that stuff.


 At the moment I am working as one of the Engineers representing the Client on the Waterview Tunnel project – currently NZ’s biggest transport project. For those of you who still don’t know, Auckland has just had two massive holes drilled out of the ground for two tunnels that are 2.4km in length that connects the airport SH20 motorway to west SH16. So instead of going through the city, westies can come through the tunnel to get to the airport and south-siders can get out west as well.  In 2010 I left Auckland and worked in the Gold Coast for five years.  I was working in Manukau at the time, when someone from Australia rang me and offered a job opportunity in Gold Coast.  My work mates thought it was funny that I would be asking my mum and dad if I was allowed to move to Gold Coast by myself at the age of 28 (#islandgirlprobs).  I promised mum and dad that I would go to church on Sundays and make sure I looked clean so that everyone knew my parents cared about me. So off I went to the Gold Coast where I lived on my own, worked on construction sites, made heaps of friends, and basically learnt a lot about being independent.  Last year marked five years in the Gold Coast before I got a call asking if I was interested in moving back and working on a project in Auckland.  Of course mum and dad were pretty keen on the idea and the money sounded good, plus I really liked the idea that i was part of something being built in my hometown.  A year later, I am still here as the client rep engineer for the Waterview Tunnel overseeing the electrical and mechanical works.  This includes tunnel lighting, emergency sprinklers, radio communication, anything that needs power and controls to keep the tunnel safe and air quality good, I will deal with.


 I am fortunate enough that I am doing something that I love, that I can help out with family obligations and still have money to do what I want. I am by no means an expert in life but I do know the power of inspiration because someone once inspired me.  I am not a fan of public speaking, but the responsibility to inspire even one person tonight is why I am here.  So senior students of McAuley High School 2016 I would like to tell you about “What it means to be a Confident McAulian Woman”.  These three words are words that I believe myself and each and every one of you students can claim as truth.  That you are a Confident, McAulian Woman. 


 I first stepped foot in McAuley January 1995 after accepting the fact that I would not be going to Otahuhu College with all my mates from intermediate. In year 10 I attended a career’s evening with my dad in this same gym, where Auckland University had stalls setup advertising law, medicine, business and of course engineering.  Here was where I found my interest in engineering, and so began my investigation as to what it was exactly.  In year 11 I brought it up with my Physics teacher at the time, Mr Sheiffler.  To all you teachers who are at McAuley and those of you who are here to support your girl – you have my utmost respect and I salute you.  I am forever grateful for the amazing teachers who have taught me from primary level to high school; by people whose passion it is to educate young minds in the hope that they are better people for it. You have the important task of giving them tools to contribute to society.  My teacher Mr Sheiffler was one of those teachers you saw in the movies – the one who would go out of their way to fuel the fire of passion ignited in a student.  From the moment I told him that I was keen on doing this engineering thing, he took me to open days, showed me magazines of real life engineers and what they did, just to keep the interest alive.  Physics class was split between teaching us the lessons provided by the school system, and pep talks about what kind of amazing careers engineers have and how much money they made.  In 1998 Auckland had a power crisis and the whole inner city of Auckland went into chaos with people not knowing what to do because there was no power.  It was during this time that Mr Sheiffler mentioned that perhaps I should make it an assignment to follow the story and figure out how it would be resolved.  To me, this was what it was all about – problem solving and figuring out how to fix things.  I got to learn about electricity and how important it was. It also made me make up my mind that I was going to be an Electrical Engineer. 


In 1999 while people were scared that the world was going to end, I was busy planning my final year in high school and how I wanted to leave a legacy at McAuley.  I thought I’d try and run for head girl and Carlow house leader. Clearly I was probably the only one that thought I would make a good leader because I lost out in both roles. I was pretty bummed that I didn’t make it, but I learnt quickly that I just had to dust it off because life does go on.  I also realised that in year 13, there were already a lot of responsibilities on my shoulders. I was part of the group of young women fortunate enough to have parents who let me study, and did not ask me to work to support the family, who did not have a baby to bring up and who was now in my final year of high school.  Year 13 students, I have been in your position where you have had a lot on your plate – from cultural to family responsibilities; to church commitments like White Sunday & youth groups to school leadership roles and helping out in the community.  These are things I remember reflecting on when I realised how much I was expected to juggle as a young Tongan woman in high school.  If you’re going on to further study, you will find that you will be in the same level playing field as those who are at Decile 10 schools, those who may not live in South Auckland, and those who are probably more well off than you.  This is where life begins, make sure you give it your best.  To all of you, young women in this room, we have different roles all expecting us to deliver our best.  These different roles that we have in our families, our communities, and our education is what makes us strong and makes us women.  Do not wait for Polyfest to wear your puletasi and ta’ovala to display your cultural heritage.  Display it with your minds in the classroom, let your essays express the metaphoric way that our languages show so eloquently in our traditional songs, let your assignments showcase your ability to think, so that people ask for your ethnicity when they see you excelling in your studies.   Let your intellect speak louder than the traditional clothing you wear and your school marks speak louder than any cultural drum beat.

In year 13, Carlow had crowned me “Miss Einstein” at our farewell house assembly and I got the Proxime Accessit at prize giving – which is a fancy latin term for Runners-Up Dux. Natalie Waters, one of the last-standing palangi girls in our school at the time got Dux and is now one of my closest friends. 20 years of friendship we now have, that’s a lifetime I know, but you will find that there are a few amongst you who will do life together from now on in.  I have a handful of girls that I have rescued from crazy situations, girls I have threatened to disconnect from but couldn’t, celebrated with when they got married and had babies, and cried with them when they lost loved ones.  Thank you McAuley for gifting me with these friendships.

My mother who is an early childhood teacher, brought me and my siblings up to believe that the biggest obstacle in life would be ourselves. That it is not only the school that makes the student, but the student that makes the school. That if you’re determined enough you will get to where you want to be, and that you will use your hardships to make you stronger.  While I had friends who were leaving on buses to head into the city for school, I was dropped off a few kilometres from home down at the gates of McAuley. When I got to university I failed my electrical paper twice and I had convinced the Dean of Engineering that I wanted to be an Electrical Engineer even though I had aced my other engineering papers. Thankfully they gave me another chance, and was able to pass on move on with the degree.  Obstacles make you stronger, and its passion that keeps you persevering.  I learnt what it meant to work for my own future, to study because not only for myself but as a sign of respect for all the hardwork my parents endured to give me the best that life could offer.  To my parents, and to all other parents, and family members here tonight – thank you.  Thank you for working hard to provide for your girls to study.  Thank you for being brave enough to leave the Islands where you could have stayed to work and eat off the land, because you saw better opportunities here in the land of milk and honey.  Thank you for being brave enough to face the Palangi language head on, to pick up whatever labouring tool you had to pick up – whether it be a mop, a broom or even a factory glove, so that I can stand here today and your girls can be here today to celebrate their education. 


Some of you might know this but my dad is one of the caretakers at this school.  I am ever so proud of his humility and his hardworking nature. My dad is Mr Maka who works part-time on your school grounds to keep it looking clean and green, making money on the side while he studies for his Theology degree.  You might have a dad or father figure like mine, who just can’t sit still, always wanting to fix something or do something.  Dad is a two fingered typist with the biggest heart and I know without a doubt that a lot of you wish he was your dad, and that he actually has treated you all like you are all his daughters.  Yes – he does come home with stories about how he’s told some of you off for not cleaning up after yourselves at lunch.  And how he’s caught some of you with your boyfriends visiting during school hours.  Thank you McAuley for giving my dad freedom to make dad jokes and mock you all and for making him family.  Dad, you are an amazing person, who will always go out of your way to help people.  You are never short of a joke, but even more important, never short on caring for others. 


Girls, you are more than the number of followers you have on your Instagram page, and your value is not based on the number of views you get on those music videos you are posting on social media. Bathroom selfies will not help you pass your exams, manicured nails and perfectly shaped eyebrows will not get you that qualification.  Whilst it is great to be and feel beautiful, focus on your education, focus on the blessing that is the opportunity you have to be educated.  62 million girls around the world do not have the freedom and opportunities you have to be educated – think about them the next time you want to play up with your freedom to be educated.


So what does it mean to be a Confident McAulian Woman today? It means being confident that you CAN do you.  That your journey this far is about knowing who you are as a person, focussing on the strengths in your character, showing respect and kindness to others through action, and knowing that you were born with a purpose.  Being a confident McAulian woman means showing pride in your school and the motto by which we stand on.  That ‘Domine In Te Speravi’ isn’t just a few Latin words strung together as a cool one-liner in our school song, but it translates to a belief that it is in Jesus Christ the one true God that the Sisters of Mercy entrusted this school in and we still do today.  You are also confident that the school you are attending and that I attended has produced young women who are proud of their cultural heritage and use their socio-economic backgrounds to motivate themselves to strive for the best with the educational tools we’ve got. That we strive for excellence in sport, arts, education, and social justice because ‘The God We Trust’ has given us the opportunity to do so.  And finally, being a confident McAulian Woman means being proud of the fact that you are a woman.  That whilst society would rather exploit our sexual beings than focus on our creative minds and caring hearts, I stand here today to tell you that being a woman is a strength.  I have been in situations where I have had to work twice as hard as the male colleague next to me so that I could prove myself worthy to be in the same playing field as him.  I have grown deaf to the wolf whistles that come my way from cars driving past construction sites, and lewd comments that were made when I’m with the boys only to be told that it wasn’t their intention to offend and that I should just let it slide.  These things have only made me stronger and more determined to spread the word that I am a qualified engineer, that I am confident in the skill sets I possess, and that being a woman is just another quality I bring to the industry. 


Young women of McAuley – be confident that your mind, your intellect, your culture – are your strengths. Some of you are descendants of ancestors who crossed the Pacific Ocean using only the stars in the night sky for navigation, some of youwhose families braved the unknown and fled countries to find refuge in this beautiful country of New Zealand. And all of us, I know, do not do life with just mum, dad, and siblings but we do life with extended families and friends that build communities up so we are stronger in numbers. 


I want to wish you all the best with exam results, with studies and with the holidays that are just around the corner. My only request is that someday, you will be in my position, where you inspire someone to dream for a better future, and to strive for it.  The journey to success isn’t a lonely one, it’s one that is shared with others.  As the current First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama once said “When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you.  You reach back and give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed”.  Remember young women of McAuley – you are unique, you are smart, and you are important – spread this encouragement to others. 


Leveleva ‘ae lea kau tatau atu. (Tongan sign-off 😉 )

Nika has her own blog where she shares her thoughts. You can check it out here !