Want to really make a difference? You can!

At some point, most of us would say we would like to help others, to change things for the better and to really make a difference. Then, when dreams and reality meet and faced with the pressure of “What are you going to do after school?”, most of us get over it.

We look instead for a path that might deliver us security and financial rewards, generally because we have been told this is what we should be chasing. For many of us, altruism – concern for the welfare of others – takes a back seat when after college  choices need to be made.

But wanting to make a difference can, and still does, inspire many school leavers to enter fields like health care, education and the social sciences. And when they take this path, they can, as Erna Takazawa has done in Samoa, make a genuine and much needed difference to others around them.

Who is Erna Takazawa?

Erna is Samoa’s first and only optometrist, recognised in March as the University of Auckland’s Young Alumnus of the Year for 2017.

Born in Japan but raised in Samoa, Erna long wanted a role in medicine or healthcare, and it was her sister’s shortsightedness that steered her into the field of optometry. Her sister’s first pair of glasses cost Erna’s family the same as a month’s worth of groceries, while many other Samoans had to rely on relatives in Australia or New Zealand to sort glasses for them.

Erna enrolled in a Bachelor of Optometry at Auckland, the only NZ university offering the degree. Determined and talented, she graduated with First Class Honours and almost immediately returned to Samoa to start work at the newly established Samoa Vision Centre near the National Hospital at Moto’otua. The centre opening meant that Samoa for the first time had specialist vision staff and services.

Through her work in the centre and in clinics around the other islands, Erna has led the way to free eye care services for children under 16 and the elderly. As well she has made eye health more possible and affordable for adults, changing the lives of many on a daily basis through the early detection of eye problems and producing solutions they can quickly benefit from. That’s what making a difference looks like.

Samoa’s first Queen’s Young Leader Award winner

The University of Auckland is not the only group to recognise the impact Erna is making. In 2015 she was the first Samoan winner of the Queen’s Young Leader Award, one of just nine across the Pacific region to receive this accolade. This award recognizes those between the ages of 18 to 29 who take the lead in their communities to transform lives. Erna received the award from the Queen in London, and then undertook a leadership programme at Cambridge University as part of the award. She is now part of the Award’s Advisory Panel.

Erna: how you can make a difference

In an interview with a Samoan paper after receiving her Queens Leader Award, Erna offered young students some powerful advice:

  • Start with the mindset that you aren’t defined by anyone else’s limitations on you. We’ve all heard this kind of thing before: “you can’t be Prime Minister,” or “you can’t be a doctor,” because you’re poor or female or you have a disability;
  • Don’t be afraid to stand out, to do something different and be daring;
  • Be leaders in your community;
  • Find your passion and purpose and take action.

Will altruism play a part in your career and help you make a difference. It’s really up to you.

Read more about Erna Takazawa

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