My journey into the unknown: exploring the experiences of Tongan graduates in New Zealand today and the Quarter Life Crisis
After completing a Bachelor’s degree, I had little success in finding a job which matched my field of study. I thought this situation was unique to me until I found that quite a few of my Tongan and other Pacific graduate friends were in the same boat. I also found that in line with global trends, while the number of university graduates was increasing in New Zealand, so too were the numbers of graduates who were unemployed. Furthermore that a significant number of these were Pacific. Clearly, after a number of years of study, this is a disastrous situation for these graduates and for national development. While national numbers data was available there was no research about the personal experiences of Pacific graduates after graduation.
This was the genesis of my study. Being Tongan, I decided to focus this exploratory study on the immediate post-graduation experiences of Tongan graduates, an ethnic minority group within the New Zealand population. Their views on what could be done to facilitate their transition into the workforce and then, whether and how their experiences matched those proposed in the global concept of the Quarter Life Crisis (QLC) as proposed by Robbin and Wilner (2001). I wanted to see whether being Tongan, and the anga faka-Tonga, impacted on their experiences. For example as is well documented there is a prominence given to education as a way of contributing back to the family and community and also as a major status raising activity in the Tongan monarchical society.
I decided on a qualitative research approach, using the phenomenological design as seen in the Pacific research framework of Talanoa (Vaioleti, 2006). Individual interviews (talanoa) were carried out with 12 recent Tongan graduates from three universities: AUT, Auckland and Waikato. Participants comprised an equal mix by gender, and while numbers born in New Zealand and in the homeland Tonga varied they however all were mainly educated in New Zealand.
Findings were that for almost this entire group the post-graduation experience had been a difficult journey especially as views showed that they had little idea about the realities of the workforce. Most, had assumed that they would ‘walk straight into a job’ once they got their degree. Three participants walked straight into a job which they had lined up when they were studying and were still there and developing professionally. Some discussed how they had gone for 40 jobs and rather than be unemployed had taken ‘any job’. The risk factor there, was that they had stayed in these jobs rather than try for higher level posts because of the risk of being unemployed again. This is a waste of human resources and potential. Another finding was that the family systems were a double edged sword, both ensuring their basic needs were met but also adding pressures when they had not been able to contribute financially to the family’s basic needs and cultural obligations such as to fua kavenga (carrying out obligations and responsibilities). Coming back into the family after being a student brought added pressures as well. Their inability to find a job also meant that their ego took a knock in that they would be perceived to be ‘like the uneducated’ other. Measures to address the transition included university courses having a practical component (internship), course selection and the need for networking systems to teach knowledge of workforce practices and job practice. With respect to whether Tongan students ‘suffered from the quarter life crisis’ the answer was yes in some ways but no in others. Adulthood was not an age specific concept in Tongan society and this realisation was not an individual goal but was expressed in terms of family achievement.
Suggestions for further research areas include whether the Tongan graduates’ ethnicity or English language competency influences their employment search?; Are Tongan (and Pacific) graduates ‘settling into any job’ after graduation and if so, what are the personal, community and national implications of this? And lastly how are Pacific university students making career choices and what factors influence these?