A week ago, Shona Aviu retired after an “incredible” 44 years of service – she had been there ever since it first opened.
The following Monday, Dr Debi Futter-Puati took on the role of director for the campus and paid tribute to those like Aviu who had gone before and shaped the institution.
The University opened in the Cook Islands in 1975 under the directorship of Neville Pearson; it moved into new buildings at Takamoa in 1979, and these were extended in 2012.
Over the years it grew; thousands of Cook Islanders enrolled in courses; many gained qualifications at certificate, diploma, degree and postgraduate degree levels. There are now more than 500 Cook Islands residents with degrees from the university.
Rod Dixon retired as director in December 2018; for six months, staff like Aviu took on additional responsibilities until, last week, Dr Futter-Puati took the reins.
With more than 30 years education experience, Futter-Puati has a basic mantra: “Keep learning, don’t limit yourself,” she tells children and adults, encouraging them to continue their studies.
“You’ve got to be disciplined, because life gets in the way of your studies, you have to keep going.
“The more you learn, the more you realise you’ve got to learn; the more it makes you understand that the world is an exciting and interesting place.”
She is concerned that students leave their homes and support networks behind when they move to New Zealand to study.
So her plans are to broaden the number of courses offered by the university, and build up the capacity for people to continue studies at home in the Cooks. “The cost of being overseas is tough on families, as parents we are nervous about our kids who move overseas to study because the courses are not offered here,” she says.
“The culture shock, not knowing anyone to share your concerns, it can be scary.”
Futter- Puati is no stranger to the sacrifices one has to make to study away from home, having shared a room flatting with her daughter Samantha in 2009 while they both attended university.
Her daughter was starting her degree in health and physical education in Auckland, missing home and family and thinking at times “why am I here?”
Futter-Puati was studying towards a Masters degree on tuberculosis, and how the Cook Islands was the only country to eradicate the disease.
She followed up with her doctorate on “sexuality education in the Cook Islands” – a vexed subject that still engages her. Today she has a letter to the editor published, supporting the Cook Islands LGBTQI+ community and the screening of the movie Rocketman.
She is excited about partnerships with government, like a centre for excellence in information technology. With new computers and servers, the university is now able to offer that level of advanced IT.
“We want to work with all the ministries and government to develop their research priorities … driving that anyone who is doing research in the Cook Islands is actually supporting our priorities as well as their own.
“For too long we have had people come in from overseas doing the research, so we need to build that capacity here.”
Attending the university graduation last year, she looked at people who were working full time, just quietly getting on their studies and achieving their academic goals. “It was beautiful and amazing,” she muses.