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Cultivating a diverse STEM environment

09 May 2018
Lupesina Koro

For Part II Engineering Science student Lupesina Koro, a lifelong interest in STEM has given her insights into the power of her cultural identity.

“Growing up, I learnt of how Pacific people survived from generation to generation. They had innovative ideas – ones that tend to be supressed in Western civilisation, but are very much present within Pacific culture. Along with my different upbringing, I think this sense of history shaped much of how I think.”

Like many young people, Lupesina was not always sure of her exact career path. It took her nearly until the end of high school to realise that there are opportunities for her in engineering.

“To my cousins, I was always that weird kid who liked numbers. At first, I wanted to be a lawyer – the money was the main attraction - then a teacher because it gives me great joy to share knowledge. Then one day, a lady from the University of Auckland told our Year 13 class about the lack of women – especially from Māori and Pacific communities – in engineering, and I immediately saw these gaps in industry that I could fill. Engineering had always been all about hard hats and bridges until I realised how many specialisations are involved. It made me aware of the difference I could make as a Pacific woman. I looked at potential industries and did not see a single Pacific woman in engineering. That was confronting, but also an awesome motivator to me.”

Lupesina’s story is not a particularly uncommon one, but the perception of engineering is changing as people realise how broad the discipline can be and what kind of difference they can make. This, however, still highlights the need to inspire young Māori and Pacific people at an early age to consider the possibilities of a future in STEM.

“We’re not seen in the media as succeeding in Maths and Science, nor are we being encouraged to think about coding at a young age. It’s not always easy to move beyond the frame of ‘there’s no one out there that looks like me, so it’s probably not something I should do’. I did feel isolated here at first, but eventually got over that – studying in Auckland does mean that we’re seeing more diversity, and everyone’s different and unique. I may be the only Pacific woman in my class today, but I am one of many to come.”

Like many current employers, Lupesina sees the value in diversity, particularly in bringing new perspectives into team environments. “Many organisations are focusing on teamwork, as opposed to just technology. We’re acknowledging a stronger need for flexible, interpersonal communication, which has been embedded in me at a young age through cultural identity.”

Recently, Lupesina was notably awarded an Ako Aotearoa Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Award for Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths. “I’m really excited to collaborate with Ako Aotearoa on this newfound platform that I now have to contribute towards potential positive change for Māori and Pacific students in STEM. I know I’ll be getting involved with teaching programmes by providing my input as a learner, which means I’ll be able to add value from the perspective of somebody who understands the cultural stigma surrounding the field.”

She describes on-campus support initiatives, including the Tuākana programme and the SPIES (South Pacific Indigenous Engineering Students) association as invaluable to her as a first-year student, not just academically, but in banding the students together socially to create a well-rounded university experience.

Now that she has chosen her Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) specialisation, Lupesina is able to look back at why. She notices that there are – and will remain – many untapped industries with problems to solve using skills in Engineering Science, and is already considering the possibilities of pursuing doctoral study in this field due to its versatility. "Engineering Science sounded really cool! A lady at a careers expo made me realise that it's hard to describe because there's a lot you can do with it, so I am making it my mission to find out more about it."