In 2012, Dr Jioji Ravulo, an associate professor in social work at the University of Wollongong, realised a dream to help young Pacific people further their education and career opportunities.
Fresh to academia and with a background in social work, Jioji founded Pasifika Achievement to Higher Education (PATHE), a support group that, over seven years, has grown to become a $2.5 million-funded program providing in-school workshops to primary and high schools in greater western Sydney.
Since Jioji started PATHE, there has been a noticeable increase in Pacific kids enrolling and completing university studies.
“The idea came from my passion and desire to help people reach their potential and the need to challenge the stereotypes that Pacific people may have here in Australia,” he says.
Often Pacific people don’t consider further education after high school because there’s little support or information about what opportunities are available to them.
The idea for PATHE came just six months after Jioji joined a university as an academic. He started noticing that many Pacific students were leaving soon after they had enrolled to study.
Realising there was little specific help for Pacific Island students, Jioji, who has a Pacific Island background himself, set about encouraging young Pacific people to see further education and training as part of their journey after school. He formed a group for students but first had to get the word out.
“When I first started running the group, it was just me,” he laughs. “I literally would chase down Pacific-looking people saying, ‘Hey, do you want to join this support group?’ Some people were like, ‘Yeah sure’ and others were, ‘Who are you?’”
But the idea caught on. Students began meeting to share the challenges they faced at university and in their daily lives. They discussed ways to overcome them, shared their successes and developed pathways to help reach their education and vocation goals.
The PATHE support group became, Jioji says, “a space where they felt culturally safe to be able to do that.
“They could talk about some of the realities of being at university but also about some of the other things that impacted on them at universities,” he says. “Plus, they could share possible solutions.”
Students in vocations as diverse as social work, engineering and law work with PATHE throughout their degree. They’re offered additional learning opportunities such as developing interpersonal and communication skills to help them get ready for the job market.
Jioji says he’s watched students develop real confidence at university and in their family and personal life through PATHE. “We have a motto,” he says. “When one achieves, we all succeed. It’s this idea that as Pacific people we’re collectively oriented. If one of us achieves it has a flow-on effect to the rest of our family, and to our community.
“It’s about the message that as Pacific people we can achieve. That we can use our many talents, strengths and abilities to engage in further education and training.”
Pacific Island students’ enrolment numbers at university have quadrupled in recent years, Jioji says, with more undergraduates completing their degree. Many are going on to complete postgraduate studies, honours, masters and PhDs.
“We’ve even seen some of our students go on to become staff members,” he says. “Students can also go out as ambassadors into schools that we’re working with in greater western Sydney. We’ve been very impressed with how PATHE has enabled people to feel that they’re part of something bigger.
“For me, that’s really exciting because it’s going back to this idea of having more people from diverse backgrounds be part of a bigger, broader conversation and contributing to a bigger perspective on diversity in Australia.”
Jioji attributes his passion for helping others to his own diverse background. His father is indigenous Fijian and his mother is Anglo-Australian and he grew up in public housing. He says seeing the challenges people around him faced inspired his interest in social work.
“Reality for a lot of people may be not so easy,” he says. “So it’s about being able to provide the help that people might need in times of need.
“It’s about being able to create, develop and implement programs and support services that enable people to achieve. Being able to move beyond their current circumstances and provide scope for people to all be part of that change process.”
He believes helping people is part of who we are as Australians. “Helping people is about community and being part of something bigger. For me that resonates with what I want to do individually. I want to be part of something bigger, something that helps what we see in reality.”
His advice to inspire others is that we celebrate diversity in Australia and champion, rather than shrink from, difference. “We all come from dissimilar backgrounds. We can use our difference to make a difference whether it be based on what we do, our skills or our perspectives.”