Helena Kaho has turned her life around. After a very unpromising start to her education, she has become the first Pacific Islander appointed to the Auckland University Law School academic staff.
At school, she struggled to focus and lost interest. She had her first child at age 18, and was a mother of four children by the time she was 26.
It was the knowledge that people were saying she'd ruined her life and would never amount to anything that made her want to prove something to herself and others.
"I knew that if I made an effort, I could achieve a lot more. I wanted to do something impressive – something that would show them I could make something of my life."
She found the answer in education, surprising herself and others by graduating BA, LLB (Honours) and LLM (Honours).
Of New Zealand and Tongan descent, Helena was born and raised in Auckland. She went to St Mary's College in Herne Bay, but didn't enjoy her early college years, instead wagging classes, being naughty and missing out most of her fourth form year. She was sent to live in Tonga where she attended Tupou High School, returning to finish her final year of school at St Mary's.
After qualifying as a beauty therapist, she often worked from home while her children were small. "I was freelancing, doing make-up for weddings. I enjoyed it, but I also knew it wasn't what I wanted to do forever. I started thinking about what else I could do."
The turning point came with Auckland University's New Start preparation and bridging programme which helps people aged 20 or more, who don't have University Entrance, to take a first step into university study.
"I enjoyed all the lectures, I loved it and I found I could do it," she says.
After that, there was no stopping her. She completed a year of Arts and then Part One of Law, recalling how nail-biting it was because the grades came through right on Christmas – "depending on the outcome, Part I law students either had a really good holiday or a really bad one!"
Helena says her parents were proud of her achievements, if not a little perplexed that a creative and free-spirited person such as herself had chosen to become qualified in the legal profession.
As an assistant lecturer at the law school, Helena's time is now split between lecturing Law and Society and research focused on Pacific Island issues. In the second semester she will teach an elective called "Pacific People in Aotearoa; Legal Peripheries".
"Never in a million years did I think I'd be doing something like this," she says. "I really didn't enjoy public speaking and I had to get over that really fast. I got advice from everyone I could think of and then in the end I just did it. I still find it nerve-wracking at times, but maybe if I got too comfortable, it wouldn't be a good thing."
Helena likes that she can support Pacific students at law school. "Our Pacific students are coming together and achieving great things – we've got good faculty support and there's lots of collaboration with the other student associations – there's a good vibe."
Helena knows how it is to feel uncomfortable. "No matter how you look at it, the law school environment can be intimidating, for lots of people. For us, the value systems are very different and being brown, you can feel very out of place. There are still issues that we face that need to be addressed, but I think the will is there and it's wonderful that the faculty has hired a Pacific lecturer. I don't think we can underestimate the positive impact on Pacific students when they can sit in a lecture and see someone who looks like them up there at the front teaching. I'm both proud and humbled to be that person."
The course Helena teaches incorporates a lot of material about the Treaty of Waitangi and tikanga Māori. For some students – and she includes herself when she did the same course as a student – it's a real eye-opener.
"The teaching makes students aware of the potential for law to be used to further various interests and that there are other, equally important cultural views they shouldn't ignore. Hopefully they will never look at law in the same way again," she says.