Okirano Tilaia

At just 17 years old, this young man of proud Samoan heritage has developed significant leadership credentials which span community, school, sport and culture.

He created and drove a huge student vigil in response to the Christchurch mosque shootings, is a voice for concerns about the environmental challenges facing low-lying Pacific nations, and works with central government as an advisor on education and youth development.

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Oki organised and MC-ed the event, Students Uniting in Love, and quickly became the student voice at many Christchurch vigils and events that followed. He was interviewed by countless international media, and handled himself with grace, dignity and maturity. He used the exposure to spread a message of support and love for the Muslim community.

Cashmere school dean, Margaux Hlavac, says the school and local community were incredibly proud of the way Oki represented them on a global stage – especially the school’s Pasifika and Maori students. The school received many hundreds of letters and emails from around the world commending Oki for his inspiring message of love.

But before this, Oki was already a leader of significant standing. He has shown sustained commitment to addressing issues of social justice, promoting opportunities for Pasifika youth, fostering cross-cultural understanding and communicating issues regarding a sustainable future for people of the Pacific. As a young man of proud Samoan heritage, he is acutely aware of the environmental threats facing the Pacific region. Wherever he promotes opportunities and voice for Pasifika youth, environmental sustainability is a key part of his message

Oki has attended the Pacific Youth Parliament, where his contributions as a commanding and passionate speaker on Youth Affairs were noted. In Wellington, he delivered professional development to 30+ staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade around how to effectively engage and interact with Pasifika youth and peoples. In Dunedin, he delivered professional development for Pasifika Health students at Otago University.

He is a member of the Minister of Education Youth Advisory Group, and is the only student in Christchurch trained as an NCEA ambassador, to help ensure that all people, especially youth, get a say in education in New Zealand. He is also a member of the Christchurch Youth Council and the New Zealand U16 basketball team, won the supreme Christchurch award at the Canterbury Youth Awards, has met with the US Ambassador and other embassy staff to discuss more effective engagement with Pasifika youth, spoke on inclusivity at the Parliamentary Clerks Conference, .

A young man of deep Christian faith and a keen basketballer, Oki's sense of teamwork and service is fundamental. He has a strong moral code of giving and humility, and is acutely aware of the sacrifices his family made coming from Samoa to New Zealand. He is driven to help create an education system where his two younger brothers and other young Pasifika are supported to succeed.

“I want Pasifika youth to have a voice in the New Zealand education system to succeed and have the freedom to express themselves."

Oki is an intellectually-gifted student who says history is his favourite subject. He is variously described as dynamic, charismatic, academically gifted, humble and modest, with an extraordinary ability to communicate effectively with everyone from ambassadors and public sector leaders to young children.

Next year, Oki hopes to study political science and international relations, then broaden his perspective with travel.

Margaux Hlavac has been Oki’s dean for five years. She describes Oki thus: “Whatever Oki is involved in - people are drawn to him. He has mana and charisma, but he is genuinely modest. As a public speaker, he is articulate, dramatic, and powerful. He unfailingly encourages others, and is exceptionally collaborative in how he works. Motivated by a desire to give back to his community and beyond, he is a young man of extraordinary integrity and humility.”