Yet here I am in the UK, wearing four times the layers I do in Raro (still with jandals, of course), two months into a Masters Degree at the University of Cambridge.
So far, I am: struggling to get through a mountain of readings; craving the warm sunshine of Rarotonga; missing the best hugs in the world from my 3 year old daughter; crying at the NZD to GBP conversion rate; missing fresh tuna; fighting impostor syndrome daily; and still, thoroughly enjoying every single new learning experience.
I’m here pursuing an 11-month MPhil in Conservation Leadership which, given our local and global commitments, I believe is of great relevance to the Cook Islands.
There are 21 of us from 16 different countries. I am the only Pacific Islander this year, and so proud to be here as a Cook Islander.
The course focuses largely on leadership and management in the context of environmental conservation. It is delivered by a wide range of experts in various fields, many of whom work for international conservation NGOs but also lecturers in business, engineering and private consultancies.
Most of our learning takes place in the David Attenborough Building, near the partner organisations of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
The modules so far have been on conservation problems and practice, management, and innovation for conservation leadership. Still to cover are conservation enterprise, communicating conservation, and conservation governance. In every lecture we are asked to think critically and to challenge the narrative based on our own experience.
I have so much respect for the people I'm studying with. It has been fascinating to learn about the work they do in their respective countries – protected area management, conservation of lions, lemurs, tigers, various birds, and different ecosystems.
The course includes a 4 month placement with one of the partner organisations of the Conservation Initiative. The placement involves addressing a leadership challenge facing the organisation and I intend to choose a challenge that is relevant to the Cook Islands.
I am excited to start the leadership part of the programme. I believe a good leader is one who is values-driven, genuine, has integrity, and actively encourages and fosters the leadership potential of others.
I don't believe that leadership is hierarchical – anyone can be a leader by noticing where change is needed, and then stepping up to help make that change. I want to lean into the challenges that come my way and to grow in my leadership capacity.
It seems like a miracle that I'm here, but I know it is not. I am here because of opportunities, trust, and support.
Opportunities that I have been given, encouraged to apply for, and that I am privileged to have. Trust from people who have vouched for me, given me chances, and even second chances.
And finally support. Scholarship support from Fauna and Flora International. Visa and immigration support from the Cook Islands Ministry of Education. Support from Te Ipukarea Society, friends, mentors, and lecturers, in the form of encouragement and capacity building.
And of course, support from my family. For everything. It's one thing to be given an opportunity, but it's another to have a family that will do everything in their power to ensure you can make the most of it.
Words don't do justice to the gratitude I feel for them – hopefully a degree from the University of Cambridge will.