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'You feel like you've been failing your entire life'

The Wireless logo The Wireless 25/06/2017
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Fulbright award winner Trish Tupou pens a letter to her teenage self. 

 This week, 25-year-old Trish Tupou was the recipient of a $35,000 Fulbright New Zealand General Graduate Award. 

The former University of Auckland student will complete a Master of Arts in Pacific islands studies at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. 

She has penned the below letter to her underachieving teenage self. 



Today you will not want to go to school. You are 14. You wear smudged black eyeliner to excess and your mum's old L'Oréal eyeshadow as a dark smeared 'bronzer'. You will spend the next two years in and out of the guidance counsellor's office. You will skip more classes than you attend.

You are 17. This year you will decide not to go back. You should be in seventh form. Instead you spend your days on the sofa watching Dr Phil. By the time what should have been your school holidays arrives, you realise it's time to go back. You meet with your dean. You meet with your principal. They say "if you make the effort to attend all of your classes you can come back to school". You say you will. You don't. You go to five full days of school for the entire year. You don't go to your end of year dinner, your form's camping trip to the beach, your end of year prize giving or assembly. When you receive your end of year 'letter of reference' you are told that you have potential but you lack the drive to achieve much in life. You are told that 'maybe' you'll go to university, but who knows…

You are 18. After six months of living away from home in a new city, new school (art school this time), new friends, new flat, you decide that it's too much again. You drop out. Again. You spend six months on the benefit where you attend a workshop for 'Pasifika youth' for four hours everyday. They say that you have potential over the others because you could "look the part for retail".

You're 19. You're back home. You're doing a bridging course to get University Entrance.

You're 23, it has taken you five years to get your Bachelor of Arts, including summer school every year to make up for all those papers you flunked just cos you couldn't be bothered to sit the exam. You look into postgrad options. You meet with a student advisor. They tell you that you can't study what you want to study. They tell you that you need to be serious about your Tonganness if you really want to do Pacific studies. You cry. How can you be more serious about your own blood, bone, flesh and skin?

It's the end of your year in Pacific Studies. Your lecturer tells you there are no scholarships for you. No funding that could help you with an MA. You fly to Wellington and reach out to one of your long time inspirations Teresia Teaiwa. You've never met before. You tell her you want to come to Vic and study under her. She says: Go further. Go to America. Go to Hawaii like Epeli Hau'ofa, and like she did. Apply for a Fulbright - you'll get it! No one has ever told you that you could get a scholarship before.

You apply.

You get short-listed.

You get an interview.

You're nervous and unprepared.

You cry in your interview when you realise just how much you really want this.

You're asked by one of your interviewing panellists: "You're obviously an over-achiever, so how do you think you will deal with failure if it ever comes your way?"

You laugh. No one has ever called you an overachiever.

You say you feel like you've been failing your entire life. Always making mistakes and being pushed back. But, you say, now that I think about it failure is the same as success. My failures are my successes. Things happen in life. Good. Bad. But it's always about what you do next. What is failure or success without a reprise?

You leave the interview content, but you tell yourself that you probably didn't get it. It's okay.

One month later you get the phone call.

You f*****g did it.


This is a message for my teenage-self. I wish I could have known that I could do something more than skip class when I was 14. I wish I could have had the confidence to claim my own intelligence. But sometimes we have to fail, and fail more than once and fail hard. But take it from me, the ultimate failure of all failures, that failure is your hunger and your nourishment.

This is a message for all my fellow "has potential, but no drive."

No. You can literally do anything. What you did yesterday will always stay with you, but make that burden light on its feet cos you got places to be sistah!

*This post has been edited for clarity.


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