After struggling to focus and losing interest in school, she had her first child at age 18, and was a mother of four children by the time she was 26. Many people had written her off as something of a lost cause.
It was the knowledge that people were saying she’d ruined her life and would never amount to anything that made her want to prove something to herself and others.
“I knew that if I made an effort, I could achieve a lot more. I wanted to do something impressive – something that would show them I could make something of my life.”
She found the answer in education, surprising herself and others by graduating BA, LLB (Honours) and LLM (Honours), becoming an Assistant Lecturer at the Auckland Law School this year and the first Pacific Islander to become a member of the academic staff.
Of New Zealand and Tongan descent, Helena was born and raised in Auckland. Her mother Beverley has a Bachelor of Education and her late father Tavake was one of the first Pacific psychiatric nurses in New Zealand in the 1970s.
Helena went to St Mary’s College in Herne Bay, but didn’t enjoy her early college years, instead wagging classes, being naughty and missing out most of her fourth form year. She was sent to live in Tonga where she attended Tupou High School, returning to finish her final year of school at St Mary’s.
As a young mother, she says she and her children grew up together. “It probably would have been better to have a family when I was more rounded as an adult,” she says. “Instead, I was trying to work out who I was. I was trying to instil the right values in them when I was still trying to figure out my own. Being a younger mom does have its positives – we are close and can talk and laugh about anything and I love that.”
After qualifying as a beauty therapist, she often worked from home while her children were small. “I was freelancing, doing make-up for weddings. I enjoyed it, but I also knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. I started thinking about what else I could do.”
The turning point came with the University of Auckland’s New Start preparation and bridging programme which helps people aged 20 or more, who don’t have UE, to take a first step into university study.
“I enjoyed all the lectures, I loved it and I found I could do it,” she says.
After that, there was no stopping Helena. She completed a year of Arts and then Part One of Law, recalling how nail-biting it was because the grades came through right on Christmas – “depending on the outcome, Part I law students either had a really good holiday or a really bad one!”
Helena says her parents were proud of her achievements, if not a little perplexed that a creative and free-spirited person such as herself had chosen to become qualified in the legal profession.
“I don’t think my kids really understood what I was doing, all they saw was me doing a lot of late nights and missing family outings because I’d be studying,” she said. “It wasn’t until they came to my first graduation ceremony that they realised what I’d done. When I walked across the stage, they were so excited, yelling ‘Choooohoooo!’ and stomping their feet.”
When nearing completion of her BA/LLB, Helena started work as the Law School’s Pacific Academic Coordinator – a full-time position which she combined with her Masters studies, leaving the job to gain some experience in legal practice when she finished her degree in 2012.
She packed up the family and moved to the Cook Islands on a two-year contact as a solicitor. “I wanted the kids to get a taste of the islands,” she explains. “They moaned at first because it was so different – their diet changed and they couldn’t always get what they wanted. But now that we are back in New Zealand they miss things about Raro.”
Her father’s terminal illness brought the family back after 16 months and they are now re-settled in Auckland, at least for the duration of the children’s schooling.
Helena’s time is now split between lecturing Law and Society and research focussed on Pacific Island issues. In the second semester she will teach an elective called ‘Pacific People in Aotearoa; Legal Peripheries’.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing something like this,” she says. “I really didn’t enjoy public speaking and I had to get over that really fast. I got advice from everyone I could think of and then in the end I just did it. I still find it nerve-wracking at times, but maybe if I got too comfortable, it wouldn’t be a good thing.”
Helena likes that she is once again in a position where she can support Pacific students at law school, and cites the Pacific Island Law Students’ Association (PILSA) as an example of the positive vibe that she now sees in action.
“Our Pacific students are coming together and achieving great things – we’ve got good Faculty support and there’s lots of collaboration with the other student associations – there’s a good vibe.”
Helena knows how it is to feel uncomfortable. “No matter how you look at it, the law school environment can be intimidating, for lots of people. For us, the value systems are very different and being brown, you can feel very out of place. There are still issues that we face that need to be addressed, but I think the will is there and it’s wonderful that the Faculty has hired a Pacific lecturer – I don’t think we can underestimate the positive impact on Pacific students when they can sit in a lecture and see someone who looks like them up there at the front teaching. I’m both proud and humbled to be that person.”
The course Helena teaches incorporates a lot of material about the Treaty of Waitangi and tikanga Māori. For some students – and she includes herself when she did the same course as a student – it’s a real eye-opener.
“The teaching makes students aware of the potential for law to be used to further various interests and that there are other, equally important cultural views they shouldn’t ignore. Hopefully they will never look at law in the same way again!”
Source: Auckland Law School, University of Auckland