Keys to Tongan male academic success identified

Finding the balance between church, family and study has been identified as a key to greater academic success for Tongan men.

A new study by Tongan academic Dr Olikoni Tanaki says it’s a paradox that the institutions desperate for their young people’s success may also be holding them back. He found students who felt obliged to put commitments to lotu (church) and family ahead of their studies were at risk of struggling academically.

Dr Tanaki graduated from Massey University on Friday as a Doctor of Philosophy after completing his PhD study that looked at the stumbling blocks encountered by Tongan men in higher education. Dr Tanaki came to study in New Zealand as a scholarship student in the 1990s.

“I was struck by how many fellow students ended up going home unable to make the transition into tertiary study,” Dr Tanaki says. He returned to Tonga as a teacher but the burning question of why some Tongan male students succeeded, while many others did not, stayed with him. .After completing his Master of Education he started studying for his PhD..

Dr Tanaki’s research found that the time taken away from study to fulfill commitments to lotu and family often eroded the space and time students needed to succeed academically. He says church leaders and families often don’t understand the pressures students face and how assignments and exams sometimes need to take priority. But he says the good news is that stumbling blocks can be stepping-stones as well.

“I’ve developed a framework in which the positive aspects of lotu and family can be harnessed because students told me that they got a lot of support from their churches and, of course, families. It’s just a matter of finding balance.”

The other stumbling blocks revealed in the study point to a failure by tertiary institutes to cater to Tongan male learning styles, which Dr Tanaki says are more communal and co-operative. “Our students don’t do well in places that are geared towards individualistic learning and they often lack comprehension and communication skills, which puts them at a disadvantage,” says Dr Tanaki.

Dr Tanaki says he chose to focus his study on male students because the gap between female and male academic success is even more pronounced with Tongan students than with New Zealand students. He hopes his “life equation” around how students can find balance in their cultural and academic lives will help more Tongan males achieve academically.

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