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Young Tongan sailor achieves unique career double

‘Alakihihifo Vailala

‘Test the waters’: Tongan sailor achieves unique career double

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

A young Tongan who has achieved a double academic and career triumph is encouraging fellow Pasifika to test the waters and challenge the boundaries.

Kinitoni Lotulelei has completed his university studies and basic navy training - and has graduated from both just a few weeks apart.

The 23-year-old is now encouraging other young Pasifika interested in joining the New Zealand Defence Force to do so.

Lotulelei comes from the villages of Sapa’ata and Tongamama’o in ‘Eua, Tonga. His parents migrated to New Zealand shortly before he was born. They lived in Kelston, West Auckland, and which the young man proudly calls home.

He excelled at Kelston Boys High School and in year 13 economics, in particular, which led him to study a commerce degree at the University of Auckland.

But university had its challenges, he says.

“The majority of my course was online because of Covid - but I learn better in class face to face.”

Despite the difficult experience, making his parents proud is what fuelled him to complete his degree.

While studying, Lotulelei began training with friends preparing to join the Royal NZ Navy.

‘Pain is temporary. Victory is forever’

The group’s mentor, Leading Youth Development Specialist James Faleofa, was awarded The Royal NZ Navy’s Sailor of the Year for 2022 and was the NZ Defence Force’s 2022 Person of the Year.

Faleofa invited people serving in the NZ Army and Navy to share their story with Lotulelei and his friends.

“That hooked me in and it made me want to join the Navy,” Lotulelei says.

Kinitoni Lotulelei, pictured after graduating from the University of Auckland. Photo / Supplied

His younger brother is also in the Navy and completed his training a few months before Lotulelei.

Lotulelei graduated university in May and then completed what he described as his “ruthless” basic training a few weeks later in June.

“Ruthless but in a way that teaches you discipline,” he says.

“It changes you from a civilian into an actual sailor that’s here to protect the country, the waters.”

For family and the community

He recalls a training exercise which involved repeatedly carrying sandbags uphill.

“I reached the very top of the hill [and] my legs had almost given up. I’d had enough. But I remembered my old man’s saying that pain is temporary, but victory is forever”.

Lotulelei was exempted from Navy training for a day for his graduation - something he understands had never been done before.

The Lotulelei family. Photo / Supplied

Lotulelei began training as a marine technician. However, his path in the Navy has changed, after being accepted to become an officer, through a commission from the ranks.

This is extremely special as Lotulelei is only two months into serving in the Navy.

Regardless of where Lotulelei’s navy career takes him, his thoughts are with home.

“I do want to make a difference for my community back home in Kelston because there’s a lot of wasted potential out there that could be put to good use.”

Hero image: Kinitoni Lotulelei performing a haka with fellow Navy graduates. Photo / Supplied

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