Getting to know: Tehani Withers

As her career takes flight, Master of Science Graduate Tehani Withers still remains grounded. Currently employed as a Project Manager for SOP Manu/BirdLife International, she tells us about her deep connection to Waikato University and the benefits of studying her BSc tech degree in NZ, a home away from home.

What made you decide Waikato?
Mainly because of the BSc tech degree, which had a specialisation in restoration ecology and an internship component. At that time, the UPF (Université de Polynésie Francaise) did not have many options in Biology studies. Another motivator was that my parents attended Waikato previously, along with other family members and friends, so I was not completely alone when I moved to NZ.

Tell us about growing up
I grew up in Tahiti (French Polynesia). My parents moved there after working a couple of years in Singapore, where I was born, to be closer to my father’s family. They actually met at Waikato University where they completed their masters’ degrees. They found jobs pretty quickly back in Singapore, my mother as a biology teacher and my father as a French teacher in the Alliance Française. We then moved to Tahiti where my little sister was born. She got leukaemia when she was around 5 years old and as there were no hospitals to treat cancer in Tahiti, we had to live part-time in Auckland at The Ronald McDonald house. When she got better, we moved back to Tahiti and after completing high school in Tahiti, I decided to move to NZ to complete my tertiary studies; at the same university as my parents.

What were the practical aspects of your BSc tech degree?
I did two internships back in French Polynesia, with the Ornithological Society of French Polynesia (SOP Manu). My first three-month internship was working on a conservation project funded by the CLP (Conservation Leadership Program). The project’s goal was to update the population number of the endangered species Marquesan Kingfisher (only population on Tahuata Island, Marquesas Archipelago)

The SOP Manu took me back for another internship, to work on the Tahiti fly-catcher (critically endangered bird species: 50 individuals). I monitored nests and population, and I worked on monitoring the number of invasive introduced birds and conducted a survey on a little fire ant colony next to the Tahiti fly-catcher habitat.

Finally, for the Department of Conservation (on Motutapu Island, Hauraki Gulf) and the MEIT (Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust), I conducted a research on another NZ endangered species, the Takahe. My thesis title: Foraging behaviours of translocated Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri) at two contrasting sites, New Zealand.

Were you involved in any extra-curricular activities/clubs etc?
I lived in College Hall during my 3 year BSc tech degree and I used to participate in all Pacific cultural nights by performing Tahitian dance shows. I tried to start a club to teach students Tahitian dance, but became too busy during my third year. I was also a student ambassador during 2014, which was quite a nice casual job to do while in University.

Did you have any outstanding mentors/lecturers during your time here? Any particular papers/courses you enjoyed?
The College Hall staff were the best support I could have while I was studying. It was very hard to be away from my family and Tahiti at first, and they really helped me get used to NZ cultural differences. Teachers were mostly understanding of my problems with writing in English, since French was my first language.

During my masters, I was lucky to be supervised by Dr. Chrissen Gemmill, Mr. John Innes (Landcare research) and Dr. Steven Miller (statistics department). Many other Waikato staff in the Research department really guided me too and really inspired me to work in ecology: Dr Bruce Clarkson, Dr Daniel Laughlin, Dr Mike Clearwater, Kiri Cutting, Rebecca Bylsma, Catherine Kirby, Toni Cornes, etc. They are the best at what they do and the most enthusiastic people I have met.

What have been some highlights and achievements for you so far?
Finishing my 6 yearlong studies! While I was searching for a job, I was also very happy to work on different projects (with DOC, Bream Head Trust, Project Tongariro Trust, etc.). I was very lucky to meet new people & travel across NZ while participating in different conservation projects. I felt that completing a few weeks at a time of volunteer work was very meaningful (and also helped my professional career).

My biggest achievement right now is to have been recruited as a project manager for SOP Manu/BirdLife International. Although I am qualified, this job required many years of experience, and I was very lucky to have been chosen.

Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing?
Since I came back to Tahiti, I’ve gone back to Tahitian dance, and managed to participate in two dance shows, which was great. I also enjoy running when I can, and hiking.

What do you see yourself doing over the next five years? 
Life is full of endless possibilities. The conservation projects that I am working now will take at least 5 years to be completed. For now, this job is being funded for 2 years. If they are funded again I might renew my contract and I could then continue as a manager for a different conservation project, or find a steadier job in a private or government firm. I might also try to become a private consultant for different conservation projects across the Pacific. I may eventually come back to NZ, as there is not much future in conservation here in French Polynesia (ideology of conservation/preserving the environment is still a work in progress). I might try to get back into research and obtain a doctorate degree.