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Hon Jenny Salesa shares her personal story


24 June 2019


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Hon Jenny Salesa speaking at the MYSTORY Summit.

Participants of the MYSTORY Summit got to listen to Associate Minister of Education and Health Hon Jenny Salesa’s heart-warming story about the challenges she has overcome and how she got to be where she is today.

Minister Salesa acknowledged the organisers and the audience, pushed aside her notes and spoke from her heart.

“I am a proud Tongan born and our family migrated to New Zealand in the 1980s in search of a better life like many other Pacific families.”

“My family struggled. We were homeless for the first years, moving from family to family and living in overcrowded conditions.”

“We couldn’t afford to rent. We moved to around Auckland an ended up in Māngere, where my father became the live-in caretaker at the Barnados residence for mothers and children. While there, we managed to save our first deposit for a house in Māngere.”

“I did well at school in Tonga, had good grades but I never fitted-in or liked schooling in New Zealand. Everything was foreign. When our family came to New Zealand I had already passed NZ School Certificate and University Entrance. Due to the pressures of adjusting to life here, our family struggles and the hardships we went through and the moving around as we couldn’t afford a place, in the end I dropped out of school in the 7th Form (Y13).

“In my teenage years I spent time cleaning, washing dishes and trying all sorts of jobs to try to help my family. At one stage I was unemployed, then I became a hotel kitchen hand. I then worked in Westpac for a few years before deciding to go to the University of Auckland. My mother constantly reminded me to seek higher learning and follow my dreams.”

At the University of Auckland, Minister Salesa graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, and Bachelor of Laws.

From there she started to explore, spending time living in Michigan, United States where she worked as a Policy Advisor for the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, and subsequently as a health specialist with the Early Childhood Investment Corporation.

She entered into Parliament with over 20 years’ public sector experience, having worked across the breadth of the public service at the Ministry of Health, Ministry for Pacific Island Affairs and the Tertiary Education Commission.

“My advice to young people is based on my own struggles as an immigrant. Believe in yourself. Follow your dreams. You can overcome struggles in life with the right mind and attitude, keep striving and have your family around for support. But always remember that hard work equates to success.”

As the local MP for Manukau East, South Auckland is dear to Minister Salesa’s heart. “Events like the MYSTORY Summit which bring together our youth and young people and their parents are just fantastic.”

Minister Salesa has been at the forefront of confronting education, health and housing issues. At the Summit, she proudly announced the $27.4m that the government provides out of the Wellbeing Budget for Pacific initiatives in education.

Whilst this has been her immediate focus, she is also keeping an eye on helping to develop policies for skills and training, and health.

Hon Salesa is New Zealand’s first Tongan born, Tongan speaking Member of Parliament and the first Tongan born Cabinet Minister of the Crown. She holds the portfolio responsibilities for Building and Construction and Ethnic Communities, along with Associate responsibilities for Education, Health, Housing and Urban Development.

Minister Salesa divides her time between Wellington and Auckland, where her two children are based with husband, University of Auckland Associate Professor Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa who spoke at the Summit dinner on the theme ‘Stories of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’.

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