Student on a mission

17 July 2017
Lafoai Luaitalo

Lafoai Luaitalo knows first-hand how life-changing some opportunities can be. The fourth-year conjoint Law and Arts student at the University of Auckland was selected as a First Foundation Scholar while at One Tree Hill College, an honour that opened doors for her and made her appreciate the difference a helping hand can make to others. The scholarship included a job, a mentor and $4,000 towards the cost of her tertiary study for three years. Recognising the importance of the support she received, Lafoai has made it her mission to give back.

Of Samoan and Chinese heritage, Lafoai was raised in Samoa by her grandparents until she was four years old, when she was brought to New Zealand to live with her mother. In 2014 she went on a spiritual retreat trip to Manila where she stayed in the slums for two weeks.

Her host family showed her how they celebrated each day with no expectation of what tomorrow or next week might look like. “They were full of life and had so much love and grace for others. They lived simply and treasured relationships,” she says.

But seeing first-hand how out of reach access to opportunities like education was for her host family, was a stark lesson about injustice. Their dreams of going to university and getting good jobs to provide for their families, was barred by being the poorest of the poor. Lafoai questioned why she was able to access life-changing resources while her host sister couldn’t.

The injustices Lafoai witnessed in Manila were also evident in her own community back in South Auckland, where she was seeing young people with potential face unfair barriers to success.

She got involved in running one of three kids’ clubs operated by a leadership group called Warriors of Change, which she was a member of.  Recently the group also started an initiative to help young people into employment by setting up a business that hires out children’s inflatable castles called Bounce for a Cause.

Based at Randwick Park in South Auckland, the business provides valuable work experience for young people while also raising money to fund local youth and leadership programmes.

“I’ve always wanted to help people and I’ve loved doing volunteer youth work at Randwick,” says Lafoai. “I guess my ethos over the past two years has been to unselfishly volunteer my time to create spaces for youth to be heard, to be creative and to feel like they also can create meaningful change,” she says.

Lafoai also volunteers as a respite foster caregiver. “I look after kids - mainly some of my younger friends - and I enjoy it as it has taught me a lot about other children’s struggles, which continues to motivate me to help others,” she says.

“I’m interested in children’s rights but recently I took a paper on refugee law and I really enjoyed that too so I’m unsure what area I ultimately want to work in. International human rights law appeals,” she says.

Lafoai was recently selected to take part in the inaugural TupuToa intake, an innovative programme which creates pathways for Maori and Pasifika tertiary students into corporate careers as well as providing early career support.

“It’s great being a part of a community trying to implement structural changes in the areas of diversity,” she says.

Lafoai is adamant that taking opportunities, networking and having the support of her mentors and friends have helped her get to where she today.

“I cannot wait to graduate and see where my faith takes me around the world,” she says.