Proud moment for top Samoan woman

A Samoan has become the University of Otago’s first female doctor promoted to Professor.

Faumuina Professor Fa’afetai Sopoaga, the daughter of Reverend Nomeneta and Lili Sopoaga, from Fagaloa, is also the first female Pacific medical doctor to become a Professor in Australia. She joins 25 other academics promoted this week, and will take up her new post from February next year. 

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Faumuina said her achievement proves Pacific women can achieve at the highest levels of the academic world.

“This is a role all academics in tertiary institutions work towards,” she said. “For me, this means that it is now my responsibility to support other Samoan or Pacific academics who wish to achieve the same goal.”

Faumuina specialises in Pacific health, Pacific mental health and regional health issues, as well as Pacific capacity building.

She was an integral part of the Samoan Doctors Worldwide response to Samoa’s measles epidemic in 2019, rallying doctors from all over the world to rotate in and out of Samoa helping the local health sector contend with the virus.

She was also among those who developed Samoa’s School of Medicine, and credits her colleagues in the Samoa Medical Association for their mentorship and support as they continue lifelong learning together.

“I have achieved what I have, not on my own, but with the help and encouragement of those around me, including my family, my friends, and my peers,” Faumuina said.

Asked what advice she has for other Pacific academics, the Professor had very familiar words.

“Trust in God for the way forward. It does say in his word ‘I know the plans I have for you,’” she said. 

For the last 11 years Faumuina has been the Associate Dean (Pacific) of Health Sciences at Otago, a role she is stepping down from this year.

She will pass the baton to another Pacific academic, Tongan Dr. Xaviour Walker, who specializes in healthy aging, geriatrics and Pacific Island health. 

After studying medicine at Otago, he trained at Harvard, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and in 2014 he was the first winner of the International Resident Leadership Award from Canada’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

“I am really interested in capacity building, health and wellbeing and supporting the next generation of health professionals and academic leaders. I am inspired when I see them thrive,” Faumuina said. 

And she has had supporters along the way too. Faumauina said the man who gave her a start on the path to Professorship was Sr. David Skegg, who appointed her to Senior Lecturer, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at Otago. 

Faumuina also honoured Professor Charlotte Paul and Professor Peter Crampton for their support. Professor Crampton helped her develop the School of Medicine and the National University of Samoa. 

“My parents first and foremost have invested in my life growing up,” Faumuina shared.

“[They taught] the importance of service. Of course I did not always understand this growing up, but one understands as you grow older, their teaching, the lessons and what they have invested in you.”

In 2018 Faumuina was awarded the Prime Minister’s supreme award for tertiary teaching excellence, and won the inaugural national award for excellence in supporting Pacific students.

She was also appointed as New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Health Adviser in Samoa.

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