11.09.2020 - “There is a real passion for quality education in Tonga,” says VSA volunteer Julie Mcllwraith. 

“Tongan tertiary students compete for scholarships to study internationally in countries such as China, Japan, USA, New Zealand and Australia so students need their Tongan tertiary education to be of the best possible standard so they are internationally competitive.” 

In 2009 the Tonga National Quality & Accreditation Board (TNQAB) was established to ensure that tertiary education providers provide quality academic programmes  and that Tonga's qualifications are valued as credible, both nationally and internationally. 

The aim of Julie’s role as Quality Assurance Adviser for the Tupou Tertiary Institute was to help the Institute accredit its programmes with TNQAB by assisting with applications and developing quality assurance processes.  

“There is a very positive attitude to Quality Assurance in Tonga,” says Julie.  

“The Institute has had a number of key programmes approved over the last few years, including courses in Business Administration, IT and Youth Development. I was really proud to be able to help get the Youth Development and Sports programmes approved and up and running.” 

Youth Development programmes are vital in Tonga. The programme Julie supported included a mental health component and how to reach out and help young people who are struggling.   

The Sport qualification was also important as there had been no qualification in Tonga. Levels 4 and 5 in this qualification are now up and running and level 6 will hopefully be available next year.  

“My role was very consultative and collaborative,” says Julie. “My colleagues knew what they were doing and the policies and procedures were already good so in many cases they just needed to be documented.  

“I worked very collaboratively with my counterparts and they worked in the same way with me. There was a lot of consultation - asking questions, discussions and following up. I would start by asking them what they think and then give them options. I also worked very closely with the TNQAB.” 

As well as running workshops to train staff in assessment and moderation, Julie also worked to help people understand the importance of having written policies and procedures so these did not have to be reinvented when new staff arrived.   

“I knew that I had built real capacity when people came to me and told me what they were doing and asked for feedback, rather than asking me what to do from the start. That showed me that what I had been doing had ‘stuck’. 

“People would say to me things like: ‘I am so glad you are here’”, and ‘You are a blessing and an answer to a prayer’. It really helped me feel I had made a difference.” 

After two years of Julie’s assignment, VSA and the Tupou Tertiary Institute went through a process to assess that the assignment was still meaningful, viable and sustainable. As a result of this process, Julie’s assignment was extended to a third year. Unfortunately, it was at this time when VSA made the difficult decision to return our volunteers to New Zealand due to COVID-19.  

“Otherwise I don’t think I would ever have come home,” she says. “I loved being in Tonga.” 

Julie is continuing aspects of her role by e-volunteering from New Zealand, although she believes human interaction is important. 

“There is a culture in Tonga of meeting face to face so it’s been great that I could form a relationship first,” says Julie. “For the right type of person, partner organisation and assignment, and if the assignment is quite structured with measurable steps, e-volunteering can work well.” 

Julie comes from a family where giving back is the norm. 

“It runs in the veins. I learned very early that helping others really does feed a part of my soul and help me be my best self. 

“My Nana was my first example of that, she volunteered at her church, knitted and donated to the Red Cross and delivered meals on wheels to old folk...even when she was in her seventies and most of the 'old folk' were younger than her! My Mum has carried on in this tradition to the extent of knitting beanies for people going through chemo and dropping them off when she went for her own treatments. We donate blood and try to make the world a nicer place to be where we can.” 

Julie experienced “total acceptance” from people in Tonga and she was invited with her partner and visiting family to some very special events including the annual Church Week.     

“Volunteering is so worthwhile and an amazing experience. It helps you see the world in a different light. If you are willing to step toward them, they will step towards you.” 

Julie in Tonga


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