Madeleine Crutchley sits down with Mia-Mae Taitimu-Stevens, an administrator for Tuākana Arts, and Alofa So’olefai, a Tuākana tutor, to find out how they managed to navigate the long, challenging period of remote learning. They provide a recount of their experiences and struggles reaching out to teina during lockdown, explain the decision to push aspects of Tuākana onto social media and discuss the upcoming plans for Semester 2.
For those unfamiliar, Tuākana stretches across different faculties at the University of Auckland, present in Arts, Science, Business and Economics, Creative Arts and Industries, and Engineering. Within each faculty, high achieving Māori and Pacific students, Tuākana, provide support and mentorship for other students through learning techniques best suited for Māori and Pacific students. In other faculties, this mentorship can be found in programmes under different names. Law, Medical and Health Sciences, Education and Social Work, have programmes that are also dedicated to enhancing the academic success of Māori and Pacific students, including the Māori Academic Programme, Pacific Academic Strategies for Success, Māori and Pacific Admission Scheme, Pacific Academic Success and Te Korowai Atawhai. There are also services available in the Centre for Pacific Studies, Vakamoana and Vaka. The former provides support for undergraduate students, while the latter focuses on postgraduate students. Like many other university services, Tuākana had to navigate the tough period of remote learning and worked to maintain connections, while completely lacking crucial physical contact. The Tuākana programme present within the Faculty of Arts seems to have tackled the difficulties head-on, utilising social media and reaching out to teina directly to assist in the issues they faced throughout the semester.
Mia-Mae Taitimu-Stevens gives a brief overview of the usual focal points for the Tuākana Arts programme; “In Arts, we focus on Māori and Pacific students, especially targeting first-year students… second-year and third-year students usually stay with the same mentors.” The programme helps to create productive tuākana-teina relationships, with older, more experienced students passing their academic skills on to younger students. As many students can probably attest to, Tuākana mentors often pop in during the opening lectures of semester to introduce themselves and the programme. Mia-Mae explains that much of the work in Arts is about supporting students as they manoeuvre through the Western ideologies, frameworks and learning techniques that are dominant within many Arts courses. By offering teaching and mentoring that is more culturally responsive than standard course formats, Tuākana aims to improve levels of retention within the faculty. Mia-Mae highlights that the guidance from the mentors is both “skill and content-based,” so they can assist students in a large variety of ways while setting them up for longer-term success in their academic work. Tuākana Arts also focus on issues of equity and wellbeing, while also building an inclusive sense of community. Before COVID (and starting up again this semester!), the programme held Breakfast clubs and highlighted Māori and Pacific events and speakers on campus. With the majority of learning last semester taking place remotely, students lost their campus-based tutorials, mentor sessions, workshops, lectures, and Tuākana Arts had to make adjustments to maintain their essential relationship to students.
Mia-Mae explains that COVID created some significant disruptions for the Tuākana programme, as much of the mentoring process focuses on kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face interaction), with engagement centred around building trust, bonds and safe spaces for learning. Like many other departments throughout the university, Tuākana Arts turned to Zoom and email to keep up communication and community online. Mia-Mae discloses that she was concerned there would be a drop in levels of engagement, due to difficulties of access exacerbated by COVID. However, she highlights the astonishing rise in interactions and queries; there were 289 over both semesters in 2019 and 550 in just the first semester of 2020. She explains that they were directly reaching out to students over email if they saw a lack of engagement in classes and started seeing a great response to their hard work. Mia-Mae cites most often responding to students “not having study space, not having unlimited wi-fi,” struggling with commitments and responsibilities in overcrowded homes and struggling with the lack of personal contact from lecturers and tutors, as well as students needing access to food grants.
Another central focus of Tuākana work last semester concerned the overall hauroa of teina, which led Tuākana to utilise social media. Mia-Mae stresses the importance of focusing on aspects outside of university work during lockdown, due to the significant disruption in student living environments. She says “We needed a way to engage with wellbeing, instead of academics.” Tuākana Arts appeared on Facebook, Instagram and, most importantly, in the current pop culture moment, TikTok. On these platforms, Tuākana shared some really personal stories about their mental health and experience at university, started up #WellbeingWednesday and posted some top quality TikTok dances and cooking videos. Mia-Mae asserts that the success of Tuākana Arts over the first semester is largely owed to the mentors (half of whom were new to the role), as they were “passionate about the role and what it meant for other Māori and Pacific students.” She highlights that during the semester, due to the difficulties of access and challenges of learning at home, “Mentors became GTAs” for many students. However, Mia-Mae also highlights a need for further support from the university, stating “We’re still the ambulance at the bottom of the hill.” She explains that she would like to see systemic change within the university in a way that is “not just an add on.”
Mia-Mae also offers an invitation for Māori and Pacific Arts students who have not yet utilised the programme, who may be seeking support or looking to build a community in return to campus this semester. “Now, more than ever, we need to reconnect… Some of the strongest connections come through the programme.” She focuses on the importance of seeing Māori and Pacific students succeeding in academic environments, with mentors providing important visibility in places where this is lacking. She affirms that “We want them to be their own representation.”
Alofa So’olefai has been involved in Tuākana at the university for four years, mentored by Mia for two years, before becoming a Tuākana tutor herself. She recounts her experience during remote learning as a tutor and mentor, expressing her excitement for returning to campus and strengthening her relationships to teina.
What were aspects of your experience as a student that made you want to join Tuākana as a mentor?
I wanted to pay it back. For me, I wouldn’t say I had friends in first-year, and that sucked. That was the worst year academically for me, and the worst year socially. As an MPI, community is so important, so I wanted to jump on board as a mentor to foster community and be there, and hang out with people if they wanted a friend. The subjects I do aren’t very MPI focused, so it’s also about being there to support them in a subject or course that isn’t very catered or inclusive of MPI. For me, it was important to get students to accept their own perspectives… and utilise the perspective they use at home to understand their courses, rather than from coming from a completely Western version.
How did you feel going into remote learning, trying to translate that sense of community online?
I think that was my biggest concern, if not all of the tutors’ biggest concern. As Tuākana, we thrive on physical communication and engagement with our students. Even trying to tutor them online didn’t have the same feel, it wasn’t a real community unless you had already built that relationship. Because we moved online so early in the semester, it was really hard to get them to engage anyways through remote learning. We started in week two and lockdown followed that so quickly, so whoever I talked to, I had to try and maintain and build that relationship online, sometimes without even remembering what they looked like.
What were the main avenues that you were using to foster those relationships online?
Academically, we used Zoom and emails, but I think everyone was just spamming each other with links, emails and notifications, so we also used Canvas. So then we tried social media, which worked way better than we thought it would do, so that was great. Seeing them engage on social media, even if it wasn’t academically, it was good to see that they were doing something and that they were fine.
Would you say that push on social media was more focused on addressing the wellbeing of students?
Definitely, that’s 100% why we used social media. We had to sit down and think “Why aren’t they turning up to Zoom?” and considering what they might be doing while they were at home. It was about trying to meet the students where they were, and we know, whether it’s Instagram, TikTok or Facebook, it’s good to be seen where the students are and go to them, rather than telling them to come to us. I thought that Zoom, Canvas and emails were waiting on students, while social media allowed us to reach out. But, we didn’t expect it to go as well as it did.
What were the common issues that your students were facing working from home?
Prioritising responsibilities, I would say, was the biggest thing. A lot of my students are MPI, and we have the distinction; university is for school, and home is for chill, rest and family. During remote learning, how do you start doing your schoolwork at home when your priority should be your family? There were times I had to leave my assignments, and I know a lot of my students had to do the same thing.
Did you ever feel as if you were being stretched as a Tuākana mentor last semester?
Tuākana is about being there for your teina, so, for me, during a hard time, you are supposed to be that person. The extent to which we were pushed was difficult, as I don’t think we were completely prepared to tackle remote learning appropriately in the short space given, but I think that was a part of our job.
How do you feel about the university’s response?
I think that the university tried, and there are aspects in which they could have done more, but then there are also some students who wouldn’t reach out anyways, as they didn’t know what is out there. For example, I had a student who didn’t have a laptop or internet access, so that was about trying to connect the dots for her because she didn’t know who to ask. As Tuākana, we had to know what was out there and what assistance was being offered by the university so that we could do our job.
What did you find the most challenging last semester?
Reaching out to my students. I could only do so much, and I could go halfway, but if they didn’t communicate back, I couldn’t do anything. It’s not like I could pop into class and ask if they had a minute. I’m not getting any emails, any communication, I don’t see any activity on Canvas, so what do I do? I can pass that concern to admin, but if they aren’t getting emails either… I can’t do anything, and it makes me feel so helpless.
What are you most looking forward to this semester, being back on campus, as a Tuākana?
I think it’s being able to see them face-to-face and being able to build that community. There’s something about being in someone’s presence, trying to give them assurance that everything is okay. I can properly do my job now… Online was so hard! In-person I’m hoping that, with face-to-face interaction, I can coddle them, I guess.
What would you say to students interested in the Tuākana programme and community, who haven’t yet reached out?
I always say, when I introduce myself, “Hey, I’m a Tuākana tutor, yes, we care about MPI success, but, if you need help… I’ve been there.” I’ve needed someone to bounce ideas off, someone to lead me, just come and see us for help. We are so not exclusive, it’s about building a community for our teina, no matter what culture you come from.
To keep up with Tuākana Arts, like their Facebook page out, follow them on Instagram or TikTok @tuakanaarts