Mere Tora - Among USP’s first 1971 Graduation
In 1971, Mere Sau Tora(nee Voro) became the first iTaukei woman to graduate from the University of the South Pacific. Her journey started from the remote village of Wainika in the district of Tawake on the Udu Peninsula, Cakaudrove Province, in Northern Vanua Levu. She was the second eldest in a family of nine siblings and attended Wainika District School during her primary years and later Niusawa Methodist School on Taveuni and Lelean Memorial School, Nausori. This year is USP’s 50th anniversary celebrations and this issue of maiLife takes a brief look at Tora’s education at USP during those early years and her career in the civil service. Growing up as a young girl from a large rural family, Tora had her dreams set on social work, in particular the area of counseling, but she later switched to another vocation. She said veering off her dream path and joining a different field was a “chance encounter” but something she never regrets to this day. “USP was offering an inaugural diploma programme for secondary teaching in 1969, its second year of existence. This was an attractive option for school leavers like me,” she said. “I never regretted that change all along. Teaching was a very rewarding experience and it prepared me for other stages of my career.” But the preparation for Tora’s long and rewarding acquaintance with one of the world’s noblest profession – teaching, wasn’t all too easy. There were sacrifices to make and challenges to meet. “The course I was doing was a new one and my difficulty was not having a reference point on what was done previously as a guide. My lecturers were all expatriates and approaching them was somewhat intimidating.” “At the personal level, there was no accommodation on campus for married students and this was a challenge in my final year especially.” USP’s modern structures and facilities enjoyed today are a far cry from the rudimentary amenities provided for students in the early years of the university. “We used the buildings that the Royal New Zealand Air Force left behind and I see some of these still standing today. There were no lecture theatres such as those of today and the library was
a small one with limited volumes and definitely not much on the Pacific. “Because of the scattered nature of buildings on campus we were walking to and fro between upper, middle and lower campus, often on open footpaths fringed by paragrass. Apart from the many structural inadequacies, Tora said the problem of educational access and lack of opportunities for women was also noticeable. “In general terms, the opportunity for girls in terms of career choice is much wider now than before, reflecting not only what is available in the job market but also the shift in attitude of parents and the move away from a gender- biased school curriculum. “Girl students are also better supported now to pursue their dreams through private and public funding. The USP of today likewise provides a wider range of study programmes women can pursue and excel in.” Challenges aside, one good thing did come out of her university years. It was meeting her late husband Maika Tora from Viseisei, Vuda and getting married. They had four children, two of whom now have families of their own. “The best outcome from my USP early days was marrying a fellow student, my late husband, in the later part 1970 and going on to successfully complete my programme to be part of the first graduation in 1971.” She vividly remembers her graduation day and described it as “a very special moment”. “It was full of excitement and had a real buzz being the first ever graduation. It was somewhat surreal but with a sense of elation and relief after three years of hard work with all its highs and lows. “It was a very special moment shared with loved ones and there was much jubilation and celebration all round.” Tora’s years at USP in the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed like a new frontier. She said without the upbringing she had from her parents and their unerring support, not only for her but her other siblings, things would have been much more trying. “My parents were simple village folks who worked very hard to support nine children on a semi-subsistence income. They instilled in me very early in life the value of hard work and diligence. “They belonged to a generation that had received only a very basic formal education but wanted their children to go beyond and make it in life outside of the village. “I went to boarding school at the age of ten and remember in the middle of my sobbing, my father’s parting words –“Lai vuli va’akaukauwa mo yaga mai muri”. (Go study hard to be a blessing, useful in the future.”) Two of Tora’s siblings went on to attain PhDs while three got Masters, a true testimony of the value of dedication and perseverance in achieving greatness. After teaching for three years Tora went back to USP in 1975 to do a Bachelor of Education for two years. She was awarded a Master of Arts in 1997. She taught in three secondary schools for a total of 16 years before moving to education administration at the Ministry of Education for nine years. From 2000 until retirement in August 2017, she worked in the Office of the Prime Minister for four years and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ foreign service for twelve. Since retiring last year, Tora has found new things to keep busy. She now enjoys spending quality time on family, community engagements and leisure activities, among others. “A colleague reminded me lately that there is nothing called ‘retirement’. And I tend to agree. In the narrow sense perhaps I have retired from a career as a public servant but I find there is no idle moment,” she said. “There are things to do for and with family, community etc and more time to do the things I love – gardening, reading,
spending time with my two grandchildren, solving the Fiji Times daily crossword puzzle and walking, to name a few. “When time allows her, she likes to cook one of her special tie s-tu ki lam ula mus uruwa, lemon grass fl av our ed fish curry cooked w it heggplants,b hindi and pumpkin in a pool of thick coconut milk. She may even whip up a tray of rich cassava cake or concoct a hot cup of coffee (using a Breville coffee machine she got from Wellington) if you are a guest at her Upper Ragg Avenue home. “I have had a year of transition and I am now looking forward to God’s purpose for me this season.” That purpose includes working as a volunteer for Homes of Hope, a charity faith-based organisation that works empowers young women and children who are victims of sexual abuse and violence. She will help with networking and finding “friends of the home”. “I changed my dreams of becoming a social worker and took up teaching. Now my life has come full circle and I’m doing the very thing that I initially wanted to do. I am excited of what lies ahead.” To maintain her vibrant hair and skin, she lives largely on vegetables, fruits and fish. “I treat my body as God’s temple so I make sure I eat healthy. I also walk and just try to live a simple life of content. Those are my health secrets.” Looking back at her life and career, Tora ascribes her many successes to her Christian values. “My work and life philosophy is founded on my values as a Christian guided by God’s Word, in particular Colossians 3:23 – ‘And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.’ “In other words, giving my best in whatever I do, no matter how small the task and irrespective of whether someone is watching or not, as I am accountable to a higher unseen authority.”
Asked whether she had any message for women who have been struggling to succeed or held back by challenges they faced, she said, “Look within you!” “As long as there is a deep desire for higher learning in order to be a blessing/service to others, you will persevere to the end in spite of challenges. This will be the driving force in getting a university education for your greater purpose.“
“Thank you for the opportunity to share my story. And as I do I pay tribute to the staff and students who were part of the comparatively small USP family in those early years. ““Some have passed on and some are retired like me but we have the great satisfaction and are proud to have been pioneers in what has now grown to be an internationally renowned Pacific institution.”
High achiever…Mere Sau Tora.
Brewing coffee at home.
Tora as an Education Officer visiting Rishikul College
Tora pictured with her four children and son-in-law
Posing at her Ragg Avenue home.