Student who “did not like school” became first Islander to join Auckland University Law staff

A Tongan-New Zealand born woman who ran away from school to go swimming has become the first Pacific Islander to become a member of the University of Auckland Law School Staff.

Helena Kaho, 34, who graduated with a BA, LLB (Honours) and LLM (Honours), was appointed an Assistant Lecturer at the Auckland Law School this year.

Kaho, who is the eldest of four children, said she found the Tongan culture she inherited from her Tongan father an obstacle and did not want to deal with it, but eventually she came to regard it as her fortune.

Helena’s father came to New Zealand in the 1950s and went to St Stephen’s Maori boarding school. He met her mother in the late 1960s.

“I have a sister and two brothers, but I’m the oldest in my family,” Kaho said.

“We were raised in Auckland and didn’t visit Tonga until we were older.

“I got into law because I wanted a challenge.

“I didn’t like school and didn’t try hard to reach my potential, so it wasn’t till I was older and had my children that I realised I wanted to go to university.”

She said she wasn’t sure whether or not she could do it, but she “dreamed big and then I set goals and focused on achieving them.”

“I chose law because I knew it would be a challenge and I have always been interested in criminal law – that what I thought I’d be doing.

“Plus I wanted to impress my dad,” she said, laughing.

Kaho spent less than two years in Tonga, where she attended Tupou High School together with a cousin.

Helena Kaho. Her mother Beverley has a Bachelor of Education and her late father Tavake Kaho was one of the first Pacific psychiatric nurses in New Zealand in the 1970s. Photo/University of Auckland
Helena Kaho. Her mother Beverley has a Bachelor of Education and her late father Tavake Kaho was one of the first Pacific psychiatric nurses in New Zealand in the 1970s. Photo/University of Auckland

“I didn’t do too well there, didn’t pay much attention, didn’t really understand enough Tongan to make sense of classes, although a lot of them were in English and the teachers also often spoke Tongan,” the mother of four said.

Kaho remembered vividly how she started wagging school with a friend to go swimming at Vuna wharf.

“Needless to say I got in a lot of trouble when we were found out (can’t hide much in Tonga!) and then I was enrolled in correspondence from NZ.”

“I had to go up into the library at Tupou High to complete my work every day.

“I found it really boring and I just used to stare out the window, sketch stuff and wish for time to pass faster so I could go home  and that was how I got through my fifth form year.”

Culture shock

Kaho found the Tongan culture a big problem. She knew very little about it and her Tongan family members mainly spoke to her in English, and it was difficult for her to pick up Tongan.”

“So when I went to Tonga, it was like a total immersion experience, where I experienced Tonga first hand and pretty much unfiltered!” she said.

“I’d describe it as a huge culture shock. At first, I hated it, and I clashed with everyone, my dad’s family, teachers, everyone. I couldn’t wait to return to NZ.”

Paid off

It wasn’t until a few years after she returned to New Zealand that she realised how lucky she was, and how much the Tongan culture influenced who she was.

“I feel blessed that I had that experience because I understand Tongan culture so much better as a result,” she said.

“My siblings haven’t lived there and they can’t speak Tongan, and I know that this has meant that they don’t have that same connection with Tonga that I do.

“To some extent we feel like outsiders – not proficient in Tongan culture, not understanding how things work and protocols.

“We used to feel uncomfortable and so stay away from Tongan events.

“I was able to get past that to a certain degree with my experiences – although I am not fluent in Tongan, I can understand enough to hold a conversation.

“I have researched traditional Tongan culture, our own family history and I can say that I have some understanding of both worlds – Tongan and palagi. I see positive and negative things about both.”

Her work

Kaho said she always thought about the role culture played in how people interpreted the world and how they reacted to what was happening around them.

“Because of this, I especially have a lot of compassion for our young New Zealand-born Tongans,” she said.

“I can see the struggles they go through in negotiating two (or more) cultural worlds, as well as generational gaps between themselves and their parents and that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in youth justice.

“Our laws and legal system are a product of our culture in NZ, although this is not how law is usually portrayed.

“For this reason, the interplay between culture and law and how and where our legal system takes account of ‘other’ cultures is also an area of interest for me.”

The main points

  • A Tongan-New Zealand born woman who ran away from school to go swimming has become the first Pacific Islander to become a member of the University of Auckland Law School Staff.
  • Helena Kaho, 34, who graduated with a BA, LLB (Honours) and LLM (Honours), was been appointed an Assistant Lecturer at the Auckland Law School this year.
  • “I didn’t like school and didn’t try hard to reach my potential, so it wasn’t till I was older and had my children that I realised I wanted to go to university,” she said.
  • Kaho said she became interested in youth justice because of the cultural pressures facing New Zealand-born Tongans.

For more information

Helena Kaho is the first Pacific Islander to become a Law School academic

Juggling study and kids (Auckland University)

Studying the law pays off for busy mother (Western Leader)

Sometimes when a business is growing, it needs a little help.

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