From left; Māngere College's Reupena Kilipati, Herilla Salū, Liona Vailea and Aaron Koiatu. (Photo: EDITH AMITUANAI)

Hustling for a future: How four Māngere year 13s got through 2020

Despite the numerous setbacks and unexpected hurdles this tumultuous year brought with it, four pupils at South Auckland’s Māngere College say they’ve developed a resilience they didn’t realise they had. They sat down with Justin Latif.

“A year of blessings.”

That’s how Liona Vailea, 17, describes 2020.

The Māngere College student isn’t deluded or ensconced in some fantasy bubble. In fact, her year has been particularly tough, even by 2020 standards, given she’s had the added disruption of settling into a new school and community, having moved up from the Waikato in January.

“I came from down the line, so to be honest, I didn’t have any expectations at the start and if I didn’t drop out it was going to be a miracle.”

Instead the effervescent Tongan teenager finished the year feeling like Covid-19 has brought extra opportunities for herself and her fellow pupils they may not have otherwise got. As a result, she’s qualified for university, where she will study business and political science. 

Reupena Kilipati, 19, Herilla Salū, 18, Liona Vailea, 17, and Aaron Koiatu, 17, at Māngere College (Photo: EDITH AMITUANAI)

Finding a silver lining to 2020

It’s slightly eerie driving up to Vailea’s decile one college, which has a roll of around 700 and is a stone’s throw from the southwestern motorway. The massive state housing development that surrounds it is in various stages of redevelopment. Large bulldozed tracts of land sit alongside boarded-up houses awaiting demolition, along with a mix of freshly built Kāinga Ora apartment towers and Kiwibuild three-bedders.

The population in the immediate area is expected to double over the next 10 years. It’s a community in a state of flux, much like its young people, who have not only navigated all that Covid has thrown at them, but also been facing the well-reported issues that put many in South Auckland on the back foot. Issues like the highest rates of rheumatic fever in the country, with 25 % of people living in overcrowded homes, and the highest concentration of gaming machines. Add these stats to having the highest unemployment rates, lowest average salaries and lowest qualification rates in Auckland, and you have an environment which makes it significantly harder for its young people to reach their potential.

But Vailea is not the only one with an optimistic take on 2020. 

Aaron Koiatu, 17, Herilla Salū, 18, and Reupena Kilipati, 19, all agree: it’s been hard – but they have grown from the challenges this year has posed.

For Koiatu, his year started with goals to qualify for Auckland University’s civil engineering school, while Kilipati wanted to apply for the police, and Salū was hoping she would be named head girl, so she could leave her mark on the school she so loves. 

But when the first Covid-19 lockdown was announced all these plans were thrown into disarray, particularly as it ended their chance to be part of Polyfest – a massive cultural event of special significance to these proud Pacific pupils. 

“After it was announced, my first thought was about Polyfest,” Salū says. “It got cancelled the year before because of the measles epidemic and because this was our last year we were badly wanting to perform one last time.”

Once they overcame their disappointment, it was clear lockdown wasn’t going to be an early term holiday. For some, lockdown meant getting work, with Kilipati picking up a job at an Ōtara bed-making factory six days a week, while Vailea began sorting mail at an NZ Post distribution centre. Salū says lockdown actually ended her earning prospects as the catering business she worked for part time had to shut. Koiatu didn’t need to work, but it ruined his taekwondo season – a sport he’d already competed in at an international level – while alsoseverely impacting his chances of getting into university.

“I knew immediately it was going to affect my studies,” he says. “There’s a lot of external exams for the subjects that I take. So it meant I wasn’t going to get the time I needed with teachers to prepare.”

For the others, given their lack of access to a laptop, they all had to either share with multiple siblings or wait till the school could provide one. At the start of lockdown just over 20% of the school’s students had access to a device.

Salū says that even though there was a family computer, chores and looking after siblings took priority, meaning she often didn’t begin her online learning till late in the evening. 

“In our family chores come before your homework,” she says. “So once I had finished all my chores, that was the time I could start – like at 8pm. But because we only had one laptop, I also had to wait till my brother finished doing his work as he’s at uni.”

When Kilipati wasn’t working at the factory, he used his time to hold impromptu Facebook Live concerts singing country and western songs for his high school mates. He’s known around the school as the Sāmoan cowboy, and as a result of his Facebook live shows, teachers at his school encouraged him to make a music video after the restrictions were lifted. The video quickly caught the attention of a number of journalists and he’s now performed on 531pi, Tagata Pasifika and Jesse Mulligan’s RNZ show

“When lockdown hit – I felt like giving up on school. So I was just singing in my room and that’s when I started doing the Facebook Lives.” 

He says the support for his music he received from the school reinvigorated his desire to stick to his studies, and he’s managed to qualify for university, where he’ll be studying criminology as a precursor to joining the police.

Vailea says contrary to what you might assume, lockdown was a turning point in her schooling. 

“Covid was actually a game-changer for me,” she says. “It was when I got my laptop. The Ministry of Education laptops came a week or two after lockdown ended, but I was still working so I never received it. So my teacher actually came to my house to deliver it. It made me realise these teachers really cared and I just started to take pride in the school from then on.”

And it turned out to be a year in which there was plenty for her to be proud about. Along with Salū confidently representing the school on TV3’s Newshub, the school’s first XV featured on Sky TV’s Pacific Brothers show, while a number of ex-students have been noted for their sporting and business successes.

Vailea, who’s been competing in regional spoken word and poetry competitions, says seeing all these current and past pupils in the limelight has been inspirational. “When I told people I was moving here, half of them didn’t even know where Māngere College was. Our school motto is ‘seek the heights’ and even though we’re a decile one school, from Māngere – we’re everywhere – on TV, in the news and on radio,” she says. 

“So for me, 2020 was a year of blessings, because there have been so many opportunities that we got as year 13s that I think we wouldn’t have got without Covid. We got to express our voice more, and our teachers gave us an opportunity to be out there more. It’s like we’ve been saying, ‘here we are – we are seeking the heights’, just like our motto.”

Sport, music and spoken word competitions have all provided these Māngere College students solace during their year (Photo: Supplied)

The struggle is real

But the group also knows Covid has impacted their peers in different ways. Salū says the hardest thing has been seeing classmates not return after lockdown or take up arduous part-time work to support their families. 

“Some of my friends have dropped out,” she says. ”There’s been those who had to leave [to support their families] and it was sad to see that. I also know a lot who picked up factory work over the lockdown, and then they carried it on during the term, and they would come to school really tired, because they’d worked all night.”

These sentiments were reiterated by Aorere College head girl Aigagalefili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i. Her  Instagram posts on the subject not only went viral, but led her to be featured in TVNZ’s leaders’ debate, where she asked each leader what they would do to support low-decile students forced to drop out of school. And in an interview with The Spinoff, she described the pressure South Auckland youth have felt this year as they juggle work and school: “A lot of our students, they work night shifts. It’s this thing where everyone’s like: ‘There’s no point coming to school because I won’t be able to come before nine.'”

However, Salū says they can’t fault their school in its effort to support them.

“When we came back from lockdown, our teachers were so keen to help us,” says Salū. “They would help us at interval, lunchtime, and they were showing us how much they cared.”

And as Māngere College principal Tom Webb says, dropout rates at the school have actually gone down this year, a trend that has been noticed across schools nationwide

“We had about 24 students leave for different reasons, whereas it was about 40 last year,” he says. 

“However, more students have got part-time jobs, so they’re staying at school but also getting a job, so that’s putting more pressure on them. But there seems to be a greater sense of appreciation for school, and that can be seen in how we’ve actually done significantly better in achievement rates than in other years, which I put down to greater tailoring of our support and curriculum to the students’ needs.”

The second lockdown threw up some unique challenges but also further highlighted the issues faced by those in South Auckland. For Vailea’s family, the restrictions that prevented Aucklanders leaving the city meant her mother was stopped from going to the Waikato to help her father with farm work, putting further pressure on her family. 

“Just watching my parents struggle through the pandemic, working really hard to put food on the table, and just do the essentials – I’m really just amazed how they do it,” she says. 

But seeing how the second lockdown also highlighted South Auckland’s resilience gave her cause for pride. 

“It was amazing seeing how our Pacific communities and lower-decile schools have stood up,” she says. “We’ve been able to come out into the light and have opportunities to share our story and shed some light on what’s been happening.”

The lasting sentiment from my short time with these students was of optimism and excitement about how they can translate the lessons of 2020 into the rest of their lives. They’ve faced incredible demands, yet they seem buoyed for having come through it. 

But they also aren’t brushing over the reality of their situation, and that’s why they finished our time with a challenge to our country’s leaders and policy makers. 

“We’re hustling for a future,” Vailea says. “So given what we’ve done with limited resources, imagine what we could be doing if we got the same kinds of support students get at other schools. Imagine how much more we would blossom. So don’t look down on us, and instead, listen to all our voices and give us all the same opportunities.”




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