Initially there was surprise, some embarrassment and a sense of not being worthy enough.
However, once Mele Wendt (pictured) digested the news she was on the New Year’s Honours list and would receive a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to governance, the Pacific community and women, she says she felt humbled and honoured.
Mele’s Honour’s nomination by Minister for Pacific Peoples Hon. Aupito William Sio was to recognise her years of service and extensive contribution to Pacific in Aotearoa, and her plans to continue serving her community.
“The award is an acknowledgement of what I have achieved with the support and involvement of family, colleagues and friends over the years,” Mele says.
Born to Samoan-German literary figure Maualaivao Albert Wendt and New Zealand-British mother Jenny, Mele grew up mostly in Apia as well as spending time in Fiji when Albert worked at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva.
After attending school in Samoa and Fiji, Mele moved to New Zealand to study at Victoria University of Wellington, and has been a resident of the capital ever since along with husband, Laughing Samoan’s actor/comedian Eteuati Ete.
Together the couple have four children and three grandchildren.
Mele has spent a total of 24 years in the education sector - first as a secondary school teacher and then at Victoria University of Wellington as the founding Pacific Liaison Officer, and Manager of the Domestic Student Recruitment and Course Advice Office.
“After graduating from university and teachers’ training college, I went secondary school teaching in Wellington and Auckland,” Mele says.
“I taught in schools with many Pacific students so I guess my involvement in the Pacific community started then while working with Pacific students and their ‘aiga.”
Her work at Victoria University of Wellington involved encouraging Pacific people to get a tertiary education.
She also served 10 years as the Executive Director of Fulbright New Zealand.
More recently, Mele has been doing governance and consultancies in various areas including scholarships, Pacific peoples’ development, governance and organisational capacity building.
Her governance career spans over 20 years across 15 different entities – she is currently the Chair of the Pasifika Education Centre in Auckland, and on various boards as well as belonging to many Wellington-based Pacific groups.
“Both paid and community work has enabled me to engage with and help Pacific people - something which is very important to me,” Mele explains.
“Essentially I have always had the motivation to help our people, to do my utmost to bring about positive change, especially for Pacific women and girls.”
With this in mind, Mele spends a lot of time involved in Pacific women’s groups and organising events for the professional development of Pacific women, and mentoring individual younger Pacific women.
Both Mele and her husband are interested in creative arts, and are active supporters of Pacific arts and artists.
“Aotearoa is so enriched by the amazing talent and artistic contributions of Pacific people.”
Recently, the couple have publicly shared their personal journey through family violence and getting more involved in initiatives to combat family violence in our communities.
“Ete and I recently became White Ribbon Ambassadors, and are keen to do more to help in this area,” Mele says.
Mele says there is no lack of inspiration to keep serving the Pacific community, and while initially, she was inspired by her parents and grandfather, the list of inspiring folk around her has grown exponentially.
“Through my father and his work and interests we were extremely fortunate to be around a lot of different leaders, academics, activists, artists and others who were the first wave of Pacific leaders/change-makers in the Pacific and in Aotearoa.
“Their motivations - to help in the self-determination and decolonisation of Pacific countries and people; to ensure the preservation of languages; cultures and histories; to improve the education and other outcomes of Pacific people; as well as their sheer diligence and persistence, have inspired and motivated me my whole life to do and be the same, and to also play my part in that change-making movement.”
Her husband of 26 years and a host of amazing mentors, especially women have both supported and guided her.
“Another inspiration - or motivation - is the desire to confront and eliminate social injustice and inequality, whether it is racism, sexism, violence or homophobia.
“This was central to the way my parents brought us up, and a driver for many of my role-models, so it has always driven me, and continues to do so.”
There is no end in sight for the contribution Mele makes to her community, with her goal of making a positive difference for Pacific people set firmly in place.
“With PEC (Pasifika Education Centre) this is ensuring people have access to learn Pacific languages and to ensure the sustainability of our languages, some of which are at real risk.
“With the other boards I’m on, the consulting work I do and my other interests, I will do whatever I can to help Pacific.”
She adds while there have been improvements, it is still not a level playing field for Pacific and we have a long way to go before we can say it is.
“So there is still a lot of work to do.”