By: Brittany Keogh

Video: The Moana Schwalger Scholarship for law students has been awarded to Litia Tuiburelevu. Credit: Doug Sherring – Litia Tuiburelevu humbled by legacy behind help for Maori and Pacific students.

A scholarship honouring a successful Samoan-Kiwi lawyer remembered for her generosity is helping Pasifika law students five years after her tragic death at 35.

Moana Schwalger – a prosecutor at the firm Meredith Connell – lost her life in July 2012, 18 months after being diagnosed with breast cancer soon after the birth of her third child in 2011.

In 2012, her employer, along with the Pacific Lawyers’ Association, established an annual $10,000 scholarship for Auckland University law students of Pacific Island or Maori descent in Schwalger’s memory.

This year’s recipient was 22-year-old fifth-year LLB Honour and Bachelor of Arts conjoint student Litia Tuiburelevu.

Tuiburelevu – of Fijian, Tongan and Pakeha descent – said it had been humbling to receive the scholarship because of Schwalger’s legacy.

“It’s more than just a financial scholarship that you apply for, there’s a lot of meaning behind it because part of the selection process is your involvement within the Pacific community and it’s intended that even upon receiving it and working and graduating that you will continue to help and give back.”

Schwalger’s husband, Tapuai Fa’amalua Tipi, said his wife was a loving, generous person who valued education and was passionate about law.

The scholarship was a fitting way to create a legacy for her that reflected the person she was.

“She was one that everyone gravitates towards just because of her personality and her way of giving. A person who was determined to do well,” Tipi said.

Schwalger excelled in her BCom/LLB conjoint at Auckland University and broke glass ceilings during her law career that spanned more than a decade – becoming the first Samoan woman crown prosecutor at Meredith Connell and the first Pacific Islander to be appointed a senior crown prosecutor by the Solicitor General.

She later became an associate at Meredith Connell and also volunteered with the Women’s Refuge and mentored youth through church groups.

Schwalger had known a little of the plan to create a scholarship in her name before she died but the couple hadn’t discussed it in depth because Schwalger was busy fighting for her life – the cancer was Stage 4 when it was discovered.

“She’d be very, very humbled by the fact that recognition is taking place for her,” Tipi said.

However, the scholarship wasn’t about acknowledgement for Schwalger.

“It’s actually about those who are achieving the awards,” Tipi said.

“Put Moana aside, it’s a scholarship for those of Pacific or Maori [heritage]. I guess it’s an equity thing – to ensure that we get the right support in place.”

The Ministry of Education was unable to provide figures on the number of Pasifika students enrolled in law programmes.

But the Ministry’s Tertiary Education Outcomes and Qualification Completions report from last year states the proportion of Pacific Islanders who had a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification jumped from 5.3 per cent to 9.5 per cent in the decade to 2016.

Seeing the recipients of the scholarship excel in academia was a blessing, Tipi said, and they were positive role models for the pair’s kids, now 12, 10 and 6.

“It just highlights to them this is the norm – it’s not something to think, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s going to be hard to get to’. I want to create a sense of normality that getting a law degree or getting some sort of degree is something that we shouldn’t think is not for us and we don’t have that capacity.”

As well as getting straight As in her degree so far, Tuiburelevu represented New Zealand in karate between 2010-16.

At high school and in her early university years she volunteered at UN Youth New Zealand and in 2014 was the Maori and Pacific liaison officer. She was also involved in the Pacific Island Law Students’ Association (Pilsa) and served as its education officer last year.

Like Schwalger, she planned to work in criminal prosecution after graduating in 2018.

Tuiburelevu said she’d use some of her scholarship money to pay off her student loan and would put the rest towards post-graduate studies in a few years.

She had mentored and tutored many enthusiastic, intelligent and ambitious Pasifika students who were completing the first few years of their law degrees and hoped by getting the Moana Schwalger scholarship she could help them achieve their potential, too.

“I think it’s just about building that community together. It’s important to have that representation and ensure they believe they have the capability to do it and they can achieve and none of this is too fair out of their reach.”

Source: NZ Herald

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