Kaunanga Hehea Tukuafu-Vaioleti - the University's only Tongan student

Hehea stands out the front of the Nexus Building on UniAdelaide's North Terrace campus

As an Australia Awards Scholar pursuing a Masters in Applied Economics, specialising in Public Policy, and the only Tongan student at the University of Adelaide, Kaunanga Hehea Tukuafu-Vaioleti takes pride in the villages of her ancestors: Lape, Fuamotu, Uiha, and Fahefa.

“The Australian Awards Scholarship has provided me with the opportunity to network with other scholars and create long lasting relationships.

I have also had the ability to be part of the Women’s Leadership Initiative, which has allowed me to network specifically with women in the Pacific currently on the program, strengthen my capacity as a leader through leadership workshops, and has provided me with a mentor – Anne Bunning – who is a Gender Consultant and Policy Director, with 30 years of policy experience throughout the continent. Anne’s expertise and experience has built my confidence in achieving my career goals.”


Group photo of attendees at UN International Women's Day breakfast.

UN International Women's Day Breakfast with DFAT state director Erin Cox, deputy director Erin Leggat, and other Australia Awards scholars from the University of South Australia and Flinders University.

In addition to these opportunities, Hehea was also invited to join DFAT State Director Erin Cox, and Deputy Director Erin Leggat at the Adelaide International Women’s Day Breakfast, supporting UN Women in Australia, which for Hehea was a dream come true.

Despite the challenges she has faced while studying remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hehea has been supported by accessing the University Student Support Package, supplementary academic support, COVID-19 student support packages, and access to free online career workshops such as LinkedIn Development courses and a résumé and cover letter prep session. She has also appreciated being able to access her lecturers during their weekly office hours, despite studying remotely. Additionally, she has also received support for food, IT help, and family matters from both the University and the Australia Awards.

“COVID-19 has helped me think strategically on how to change my mindset from negativity. From internet connection and laptop issues, to the adjustments I had to make from being in a small apartment with my three year old son and five year old daughter. The first few weeks of switching to online courses during COVID-19 were difficult for me, and as I absorbed the negative aspects of it, it affected me in so many ways.

But I remembered what my mother would say to me when I was young:

                “I love you, and stay focused on school.”

I was then able to think strategically by thinking of all the resources I had available from the University of Adelaide, Women’s Leadership Initiative, and my family. I stayed in close contact with my lecturers, liaison officers, mentors, coaches, colleagues, and family.”


Hehea and family outside church

Hehea's parents Aisake and Lose Tukuafu with their seven children, including Hehea, and their individual families at their local church. 

“Although COVID-19 has had negative impacts, it has changed my life, and allowed me to see the impossible be possible. I believe it has prepared me for the uncertainty of the world as it is today.”

In the future, Hehea says “I want to have a positive influence on the economic development of Tonga and other small island development countries by fostering innovative policies to alleviate poverty.” She hopes to secure work at an intergovernmental organisation so that she can apply her knowledge and skills to have a positive impact on the world.

“Being the only Tongan at the University allows me to take pride in my country and remember who I am and what I have been taught. The University of Adelaide has provided so many opportunities to international students. When I arrived, I felt like I didn’t belong, but as my first semester ended, I was an Adelaidean, and part of a family that will last for generations.” 

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