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Michelle’s path is part of a bigger story

Michelle Elia-Siloata’s journey shows the power of education in transforming her life. The 2007 Bell Gully Scholar from Mana College has represented New Zealand as a diplomat, gained a BCom degree and the Prime Ministers award, and is now employed by Guardians of NZ Superfund while earning her master’s. Yet, she says the journey is as important as where she’s arrived.
Michelle Elia-Siloata

For Michelle, transformation includes the journey that spans the generations before her. Michelle’s parents immigrated from Samoa and the Cook Islands in the early 1970s. Her ancestors fought for social justice, challenged perspectives, and sacrificed for the future. Michelle has built on these foundations, and her dedication means she’s enjoying success and contributing so others can follow.

The labour shortage and ‘dawn raids’ shaped her family’s experience, and her childhood says Michelle. She points out that the pressure and disparity it created for Pasifika communities still lingers.

Despite tough circumstances at home, Michelle was driven and high achieving at school. She says learning to compartmentalise allowed her to succeed.

“I’m the first, and I’m still the only one in my family to attend university. First Foundation, my scholarship partner, my mentor, each played such a pivotal role for me growing into my adulthood.”

The significance of a First Foundation scholarship

Michelle says the enormous value of a First Foundation scholarship is almost impossible to understand as a young student. She says the First Foundation programme is unique and all-encompassing. The combination of three pillars of financial support, mentoring and work experience is a powerful mix. 

“As a student, especially so young, you’re not really aware of the concept of scholarships. But a First Foundation scholarship is very inclusive and well-rounded.

“The value I received from the scholarship was unimaginable. It does so much more than help with fees. The scholarship is designed to support every aspect of a student’s life and needs – both intrinsic and extrinsic.”

Work experience brought life experience.

Michelle began her work experience when she was awarded her scholarship in Year 12.

“I was 16 when I first went to Bell Gully. I had to catch the train into the city, which was so new.

Being in a big professional firm was a life-changing experience. She recalls a conversation with her supervisor that still she holds close many years later.

“She encouraged me to stay on task and not be pulled away responding to other things. She said it was about looking after yourself and your mana. Although it was about ticking things off on your own list before helping everyone else, it had a bigger meaning. It’s about keeping your cup full and prioritising your real responsibilities.”

Mentoring is about you, not just you as a student.

Michelle says she had to step out of her comfort zone to make the most of mentoring.

She says everyone needs to play a part in being proactive for an incredible relationship to work at its full potential.

“I found it very hard to share things that were a major source of discomfort and despair during my high school and university years. Students at this age are dealing with so much including just being a teenager.

“I wasn’t used to being vulnerable or asking questions, although that was what was needed in mentoring and corporate environment. This can conflict with your cultural norms and identities.  It made the mentoring difficult.

However, her drive to succeed meant Michelle was prepared to grow in new ways. Doing this allowed her to gather more support and perspectives.

“At uni, you had to talk to get ahead. In the middle of my degree, I was planning the next steps and wanted to travel a bit. I didn’t have many figures or role models who had travelled, so I spoke to my mentor. She could offer guidance and realism because she had the experience to draw on. She encouraged me to stay in NZ longer. It was the right decision.”

Michelle’s adventure continues.

“I think I did all right for a small city girl with big city dreams. I worked for a couple of
different law firms including Bell Gully. I was a camp counsellor for a homeless children’s camp in New York.

“When I was 24, I moved to rural China
to teach English to kids. I received the New Zealand Prime Minister’s scholarship to study Mandarin, which meant I left China in 2019 speaking fluent Mandarin. From there I worked as an international diplomat for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before switching to finance.

I now work as an Investment Analyst for the Guardians of the New Zealand Super Fund. I’m also close to finishing my master’s in applied Finance.”

She encourages others to follow.

Michelle sees the potential for every First Foundation scholar to get as much benefit as she did. She advises, “Please don’t ever be afraid to speak to your mentor, First Foundation, or your scholarship partner if something’s not quite right – even in your personal life. They’re here to help to help you succeed whatever that may look like for you.

“The very special dynamic of the scholarship exists to support you in areas that are not limited to finances. Use the resources that are available to you because as a scholarship recipient; they are yours.”

She says scholarship partners shouldn’t underestimate how powerful their support is for students. “I encourage you to include them in team building events or even introduce important resources such as EAP counselling should they ever need it.”

Although Michelle has overcome adversity, achieved outstanding success and become an inspirational role model, she still sees herself as part of a bigger journey and social change.

“Wherever I go, I’m always representing my culture and all of those who came before me. I’m not just a product of my parents, but I’m also a product of all the events that came before them and the different villages that raised me and the decisions I made.”


Michelle’s journey is not only an inspiration but also serves as a call to action to others to give a hand up to other bright young students who can continue to take us forward.