Pasifika student’s Mexico stay “a profound experience”
The decision to travel to Mexico on a Prime Minister’s Scholarship was a big deal for Lupesina Koro and her family but by immersing herself in a new culture far from home, she returned to New Zealand with a truly deep appreciation of her own Pasifika heritage.
Lupesina, from Te Atatū Peninsula in West Auckland, is Samoan/Tokelauan and was the first member of her extended whānau to travel beyond Australia or the Pacific Islands for an education experience. “As a Pacific Islander, a youngest child, and a female from a Christian home, I know my parents were worried, but the exchange was a really profound experience for me.”
“I always knew that I wanted to be exposed to another culture and lifestyle because the majority of Pacific Islanders never have that opportunity. The experience really helps to broaden your perspective and gives you a greater appreciation of where you come from and the values that you hold.”
Prime Minister’s Scholarship the solution
Lupesina says she had always been interested in learning Spanish and had early ambitions to do an exchange in Spain but with few scholarships available, cost would always have been an obstacle. When she was introduced to the Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Latin America while in her second year of an engineering degree at the University of Auckland, she knew she had found a solution.
She says she was nervous about explaining her plans to her parents. Her Mum, especially, was worried. “It was so foreign to her that her daughter would travel so far to another country. But in the end, when they realised how important it was for me, they were both very supportive.”
Lupesina left for Mexico in August 2019 to study engineering for one semester at Tecnologico de Monterrey in Queretaro, about 200km north of the capital Mexico City. All the classes were in English and her schedule was so busy that she did not have time to take Spanish classes. Instead, she just had to plunge in.
“My language skills came about from being immersed in the environment from day one. I knew that I was going to have to learn quickly,” she says. “The first month was so uncomfortable as I didn’t know what people around me were talking about. But it forces you to adapt and find confidence to try out words, even if it’s embarrassing.
“You also need to massively trust the people around you to be safe. I had to know that my roommates had my back.”
Lupesina lived in a family homestay environment with three other international students from South Korea, China, and Belgium. “It was such a blessing. You can’t choose who your housemates are, but we ended up like sisters.”
“One of the coolest things I discovered was how similar a Samoan/Tokelauan family is to a Mexican family,” she says. “Family is so important, coming together to share meals and experiences. I could identify values and attitudes among my Mexican classmates which resonated with my own and which really helped when I was feeling homesick.”
But she also gained a fresh perspective on her own ethnicity. “I learned how unique and small the Pacific Islands are in relation to the rest of the world. Growing up in Auckland, which is the most Polynesian-populated city in the world, you are surrounded by people like yourself.
“Going to Mexico and being the only Pacific Islander at the university was very confronting, but also very powerful, because it meant I was an ambassador for my own people. I had to be very resolute in what my upbringing taught me, so that my values shone through.”
Learning the value of global connections
Lupesina returned home enriched by her experience. Having never been away from her family, she says she has learned how to live independently and has become more resilient.
“And I returned to New Zealand with so much gratitude for the country and appreciation that we don’t face the kind of desperation which many people face in Latin America.”
But, perhaps most importantly, she has learned the value of global connections.
“We are not as different as we think we are. We can be thousands of kilometres apart and may be brought up in very different circumstances, but our human values are likely to be very much the same.
“You just have to find the values in another person which resonate with you. But you also have to be ok meeting people who don’t hold the same values as you, because they offer another perspective,” she says.
For Lupesina, the Prime Minister’s Scholarship was not just about being in Mexico, it was about being exposed to other international students from around the world and learning about their culture and upbringing. “I feel a real bond with the friends I made, and it’s powerful. I hold it very close to my heart.”
Now back living with her family in Auckland and working for engineering and design consultancy Aurecon, she would urge other Pasifika students to consider applying for a scholarship.
“The scholarship experience offers the chance to get to know yourself better, to test whether the values you grew up with are really embedded in you, to gain a broader world view, and to connect across cultures.”