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Young Pacific academic Dr Therese Lautua lands Harvard teaching role

Callan Morse -

New Zealand academic Dr Therese Lautua is set to skip Aotearoa's winter this year after securing a teaching position as a College Fellow in Indigenous Religion at Harvard University.

The University of Auckland lecturer's research journey came about after she saw the opportunity on the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) website.

After being accepted, the Manurewa-born and raised 31-year-old will head to the USA with husband Chris and their two young daughters, Kiely and Vianney, to take up the one-year contract.

The programme identifies exceptional scholars like Dr Lautua, who have recently completed their doctoral work and demonstrated a strong commitment to teaching in an area of specialisation.

Dr Lautua said taking her Pacific worldview to a learning environment such as Harvard is important given how little is known about the region and Pacific people in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

"It's going to be a great experience because I'll have time to also do my own research, as well as being mentored for career development," Dr Lautua said.

Dr Lautua recalls a number of shocking events within New Zealand's Pacific youth community while completing her bachelors degree almost a decade ago, which compelled her to take a different path.

"I have always worked with young people, I loved it and I wanted to be a teacher but towards the end of my degree," she said.

"I remember there were a number of suicides. I wanted to do something practical to help. I found I was good at research."

Dr Lautua recognised supporting Pacific peoples with their mental health and well-being required getting more Pacific people 'around the table'.

So embarking on an academic journey with her doctoral thesis, her work focused on the exploration of 'God in the 21st century' and how images of God and cultural identity affected mental well-being.

"Faith is something very important to me, colonial beliefs are interwoven with Christianity and influence Pacific people today, particularly with changes over time (climate change, sexuality) and the impact of colonisation," she said.

The University's Theological and Religious Studies comprises four academics compared with Harvard's team of more than 30 academics across the Committee for the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Anticipating a new set of challenges, Dr Lautua said establishing and maintaining a support network will be important for both her and her family.

"We're going to have to start our own networks… because I have always been a homebody from Manurewa," she said, while contemplating Boston's climate where it snows from November to March with summers that reach up to 30 degrees.

"My parents are going to miss the girls but they're also really excited. They saw me through the whole period, trying to apply for the next thing.

"They are really involved in our faith community and everything I've learnt comes from them. It's just a short time and hopefully they'll come over."

Dr Lautua secured the Harvard role with the support of Waipapa Taumata Rau staff including Pro Vice-Chancellor Pacific Professor Jemaima Tiatia-Siau, Associate Professor Lisa Uperesa, Associate Professor Michael Mawson, and Professor Maartje Abbenhuis.

She also acknowledged Dr Brian Kolia from Malua Theological College in Samoa and Toeolesulusulu Professor Damon Salesa, Vice-Chancellor of AUT.

Her position is a one-year contract which is renewable for a second year.

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