The adage “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey that counts” reflects the education aspirations of Eileen Story, a mother of two, who recently completed studies with a Degree in Social Work, Management and Public Relations from The University of the South Pacific (USP).
From the unspoiled paradise, complete with white sand beaches, blue lagoons, and lush green mountains of the Cook Islands, Eileen enjoyed her childhood with her family in Rangiura, Nikao, a village settlement on Rarotonga located on the north coast to the west of the capital Avarua.
She attended Avatea School for her primary education before she moved on to join Tereora College, where she “had such a clever bunch of friends, the majority of whom headed off to university straight after. I was one of the few that stayed behind and jumped straight into the workforce” before she moved to Australia a few years later.
“Throughout the years, the thought of pursuing a degree never crossed my mind until I moved from Sydney, Australia, with my two children to Mauke in 2018, one of the best-kept secrets of the Cook Islands.”
Eileen described living in pa enua (the islands of the Cook Islands outside of the administrative capital, Rarotonga), Mauke, as “having many benefits and providing a great lifestyle for the children, but there were areas that needed attention.”
Like most Pacific Islanders who live on smaller islands away from the main island(s), Eileen faced her fair share of challenges, like the high cost of living for essential supplies, which cover the cost of shipping.
“At one time, Mauke also went without a dentist for an entire year, so the people were paying their own fares to travel to Rarotonga to get their teeth fixed and back.”
After six months of living on Mauke, she realised that education was a significant problem on the island, and students struggled to gain enough credits; the lucky few could continue their studies in Rarotonga while the others dropped out of school.
“This was when I decided that I would stand as a candidate in the 2022 General Elections to represent the people to the best of my abilities; it was important to me that I, too, must further my education to gain a deeper understanding of our people and the societies that we live in.”
Her passion for helping those in her community propelled Eileen to further her studies and pursue a Social & Community Work Certificate to expand her knowledge on social change, social and ecological justice, gender equity, individuals, families, groups and communities.
“The Certificate required the completion of eight courses, and after I completed the courses, I decided to carry on and complete another four courses to achieve a Diploma in Social & Community Work.”
“In the last semester of completing my Diploma, I was determined to complete my degree and the remaining 12 courses. I majored in Social Work with a minor in Public Relations & Management. Though I wasn't successful in the elections, the great thing about studying Social Work is that it will be useful no matter what career path I choose.”
Eileen’s passion for personal development and commitment to helping others inspired her to keep pushing through the many challenges she faced in the past four years.
“Looking back over these last four years of study, it has been a crazy ride and an absolute juggle with COVID, looking after my family, work, volunteer initiatives, campaigning for the elections, and relocating from Mauke to Rarotonga.”
“At one point, I even broke my foot and had to attend the USP graduation to accept my Certificate with my foot in a cast. To stay on top of everything, I used the calendar in my diary to record all assessments, exams, social events, kids' events, work trips and holidays. I would check this daily to ensure I hadn't missed any deadlines and was across everything for the next month.”
“It has been a real struggle to juggle. I will not lie, but if I can do it, I know others can, too.”
However, Eileen highlighted, “My biggest challenge by far has to be the final year of my studies, 2023. My role as the Smaller Island States Officer in the Pacific & Regional Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Immigration (MFAI) requires me to travel regularly.”
“There were times that I was completing assignments at night while away for work, and in mid-2023, I happened to be in Fiji for work the same week of my mid-year exams - so I had to sit this at the USP Suva Laucala Campus.”
“Just to top it off, last November, the Cook Islands hosted the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum, and two of my final exams were in the middle of the Forum, so I was sitting exams before joining the MFAI team at Forum meetings. It was such a full-on year, and I'm thankful I made it through!”
Reflecting on her academic pursuit with USP, Eileen shared that the highlight of her studies was “proving to myself that I could complete my degree. I started wanting to complete a certificate and enjoyed the coursework.”
“I made sure to align the topics of my assignments with my interests, my work role and issues that are affecting our Pacific people today, for example, the role social policy has
historically played in social development in the Cook Islands and how global institutions have shaped the Cook Islands' social policy landscape.”
“Looking back over the past four years of study, I am proud of myself for committing to study as it will not only be of great benefit for myself and my family, but it will provide me with the tools I need to help others in whatever role I take on currently or in the future.”
Eileen hopes her story will inspire Pacific people “of all age groups, but especially those my age who are considering studying in 2024.”
At 42 years old, Eileen has this to say “it is never too late to study, if you want to study just know that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to”.
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