Wananga landing Wananga landing

Celebrating an outstanding leader in Pasifika Education

28 March 2024

Growing up in his village of Vaiafai, Iva in Samoa, Leali’ie’e Dr Tufulasi Taleni never imagined that he would one day be feted as an award-winning educator, and graduate with a UC doctorate.


Dr Taleni is a Senior Lecturer in Te Kaupeka Ako | Faculty of Education at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC).

He feels honored and humbled to represent both his family, and his village in this doctoral achievement.

“There is an expression that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’,” says Dr Taleni. “A colleague recently rephrased it as ‘it takes a village to raise a doctor’ and that’s how I feel. My PhD achievement belongs to my community, village and my family. In sharing my story, I hope to motivate my own nieces, nephews, my young people in the village back home in Samoa, and also young Pacific people here in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

His own childhood wasn’t easy, and he recalls often going to school without food. Local families worked hard but earned very little. This motivated him to do well at school and then train as a teacher to earn enough money to support his family.

As a young teacher in Samoa, Dr Taleni earned a paltry $47 a fortnight and in 1985, he left to find better paying work in Aotearoa New Zealand, and to further his education. He continued supporting his family in Samoa as he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Otago, majoring in Education.

In 2002, he joined UC as a Pasifika Educational Advisor, progressing to Kaiarahi Pasifika in 2016, and a Senior Lecturer in 2021.

Dr Taleni pursued postgraduate research at UC and in 2017 was awarded the NZARE Rae Munro Award for excellence for his outstanding master’s thesis – the first Pasifika researcher to receive the accolade.

His impact in Pacific education was recognised again last year with the 2023 Pasifika Community Researcher Award, and the Pacific Circle Consortium’s Peter Brice Award.

His doctorate thesis, titled ‘O le Fa’atamasoali’iga a Tautai Matapalapala – A Soul-Searching and Far-Reaching Voyage of the Tautai (master navigator) – How and why effective educational leadership can advance Pasifika students’ learning, health and wellbeing’ ranks as an impactful and inspiring achievement.

Through his research, Dr Taleni developed the Soalaupulega Samoa framework, which calls for dialogue and close collaboration to drive improved outcomes for Pacific students.

“These words – soul-searching and far-reaching – run deep: it’s like a plea for our leaders in education to come together and do something for our disadvantaged students.”

Many UC staff and students took part in his Pasifika Education Initiative – Samoa Malaga (trip) between 2003 and 2019, an initiative Dr Taleni led to foster greater cultural understanding and facilitate the development of culturally responsive educational programmes. 

Dr Nicola Surtees, a Senior Lecturer in UC’s School of Educational Studies and Leadership, was one of many inspired by his mentorship.

“As a Palagi academic, Tufulasi has deepened my understanding of Pacific cultural values, including how to embed these into pedagogy to support Pacific student learning,” she says.

“As a participant in the Pasifika Education Initiative – Samoa Malaga in 2019, I had the privilege of witnessing and feeling these values in action in his home village. The richness of this experience remains with me. His leadership, passion, heart and tireless work for Pacific Education is of immeasurable value.”

Just a few weeks prior to his graduation with a Doctor of Philosophy in Education, Dr Taleni returned to Samoa to farewell his late mother, Valaei Pritchard Taleni.

“The anchor of my family is broken,” he says. “The Aoa tree that stood for years at the center of my Taleni fanua [land] and village has fallen – our matriarch has left us.

“As I prepare to graduate, it’s sad knowing she won’t be here to see that piece of paper [but] I am so thankful for her commitment to education, and her love and support over the years.”

Dr Taleni thanks UC for their support, in particular Professor Gail Gillon and her team at UC’s Child Well-being Research Institute, and PhD supervisors, Professor Jo Fletcher, Professor Gillon, Associate Professor Sonja Macfarlane and Professor Angus Macfarlane.

He also gives special acknowledgement to his wife Jane Watson Taleni, their children and his extended family.

Read more of our graduate success stories here.

sdg 4 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 - Quality education.

More information
Visit our media enquiries page to contact UC Media.
What to read next
Privacy Preferences

By clicking "Accept All Cookies", you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.