OVERCOMING hardship and a strong dose of self-sacrifice has enabled 27 students from Solomon Islands to graduate from Australian Catholic University’s business program.
“It is a dream come true. We haven’t expected to come this far,” student spokesman George Tapo, who is the Pacific island nation’s deputy commissioner of Inland Revenue Division, said.
The students, each considered leaders in a country rebuilding in the wake of years of conflict, attended ACU’s graduation ceremony in Brisbane on April 17, after completing an 18-month intensive Graduate Certificate in Business Administration.
The course was specially designed for government employees from the Solomon Islands Inland Revenue Division, as part of international efforts to help the country’s recovery.
Violent conflict in the Solomon Islands, locally referred to as “the tensions”, began in 1998 and lasted four years, after militant youths from the island of Guadalcanal attacked settlements of islanders predominantly from Malaita (a neighbouring island) in north-west Guadalcanal, an area bordering the capital city Honiara.
The small island nation was plunged into civil war, an estimated 100 people died and about 30,000 refugees, mainly Malaitans, had to leave their homes.
The economy on Guadalcanal ground to a standstill.
Some years after “the tensions” ceased, government services are still slowly being restored and businesses getting back on track.
The Solomon Islands recognised that its public servants, and specifically, members of its Inland Revenue Division needed better training to work together and to foster leaders and managers.
“Even after the conflict, working together is difficult, especially if you are from another island that was in conflict with another,” Mr Tapo said.
“We (the graduates) are from our country’s nine provinces.
“We have had to rebuild the culture in our organisation (the IRD) – anything that comes from outside and has to do with the conflict should not be practised in our organisation.”
Sending a few individuals off to study in another country was not considered practical; instead the IRD wanted a high-standard study program that would enable its staff to stay at home.
“We didn’t want to send people to another county,” Mr Tapo said.
“We wanted a solution specific to country, very tailored for IRD, and we wanted our entire managerial level to do the study – to achieve a bigger and more significant impact.”
ACU Executive Education created an innovative proposal – a postgraduate qualification with the right mix of units that was delivered in the Solomon Islands, face to face.
Lecturers were carefully selected, teaching approaches were reviewed to best match the group of students, and assessment was developed to be relevant to participants’ day-to-day work life, while still achieving academic integrity and rigour.
“They loved our approach,” ACU’s strategic partnerships and executive education executive director Tom Ristoski said.
“We made sure that what we were teaching suited the context of the Solomon Islands.
“We didn’t just teach academically, we taught with the hand, the heart and the head.
“It’s clear that the course has not only provided significant learnings to each student, it has actually altered the students’ self-identity and perception of what is possible.”
Mr Ristoski said the students faced many obstacles.
They had to seek permission from parents and family, and many of the students were terrified at the thought of formal study at a postgraduate level, and with a university.
Most had no tertiary study experience and learning in English was a major barrier.
Technology was also a major issue.
Internet access was poor at best, and students needed to learn how to use resources like an online university library.
Even access to power at home to provide light for study was an obstacle for many students.
“It’s quite difficult to study in the night and also Internet access is very bad, so study was only possible at work during the day,” Mr Tapo said.
“We were allowed to use our offices to study and do our homework over the weekends.”
Even raising the money needed to attend their graduation in Brisbane required much effort and self-sacrifice.
For more than a year, students held fundraising events and activities every week to raise the funds they would require.
For many, it was the first time they have left the Solomon Islands.