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The Student Experience

Here you can read more about the experience of HDR students who have successfully graduated from Whitley. Students, past and present, introduce themselves and describe their experience of HDR study at Whitley.

Our HDR graduates serve in a wide variety of settings and can be found scattered around the globe. They are a diverse and dispersed community that maintain Whitley’s commitment to an informed and constructive engagement with God’s world, its peoples, and the philosophical and religious narratives that shape them.

Diaspora, Ecclesiastes and Samoan culture

Brian Kolia

The Samoan concept of fa’aaloalo, often translated as ‘respect’, also encompasses reciprocity, love, family and honour and these together inform the research of PhD candidate, Brian Kolia…

Brian, what can you tell us briefly about your background, upbringing, community and family?

I’m a second-generation, Australian-born Samoan, with periods spent living in Samoa and Fiji. I’m married to a New Zealand-born Samoan woman with an 8 years old son. This gives me a hybrid identity. For example, my Samoan culture is very traditional, where respect for elders and tautua (service) are paramount, but as an Australian, I exist in a contemporary society where Western values such as gender equality and individual freedom are valued. The tension between the two cultures is uneasy at times, but it’s shaped me as I learn to adopt the best of both worlds.

Does your Samoan heritage shape your approach to life and faith in any particular ways?

The Samoan concept of fa’aaloalo, often translated as ‘respect’, also encompasses reciprocity, love, family and honour. The root word alo means ‘face’, implying transparency with others; not going behind their backs. Integrity and honesty are values which I use to try and shape my approach to life and faith.

What prompted you to begin theological education?

I’m now a minister of the Congregational Christian Church Samoa (CCCS). As a younger Christian, my faith was very fundamentalist, but as a young adult I faced tough questions for which my faith had no easy answers. I enrolled in Malua Theological College, Samoa, to understand my faith better. I soon discovered, as did Job and Qoholeth, that sometimes there are no simple answers and that’s ok. It kept my faith honest from that point, and I’m glad I pursued theological education.

I graduated with a BDiv. from Malua in 2012, followed by an MTheol. at the Pacific Theological College, Fiji, in 2014. After teaching Hebrew Bible at Malua Theological College, I had to relocate to Melbourne to begin my PhD studies.

So, after quite a journey, you found yourself in Melbourne, studying here at Whitley College, from the beginning of 2018. Tell us a little bit about that.

Well, I’d been good friends with Professor Mark Brett since 2011 and Whitley has educated other former Malua students. Whitley and Malua alumni, including Rev. Dr. Leota, Rev. Dr. Moleli and Rev. Neemia, encouraged me to consider Whitley. I’m actually one of four students from Malua currently in the PhD program.

Of course, my passion for the study of the Hebrew Bible was the biggest motivation but it was a natural choice for me to come here and work under the guidance of Professor Brett and the brilliant faculty at Whitley. My supervisory team includes Dr Jione Havea, of the nearby Pilgrim College, yet another example of the way that Whitley students enjoy the benefits of there being other Colleges in the University of Divinity.

So, what’s the focus for your doctoral programme?

My dissertation is a diasporic (re)reading of Ecclesiastes from the perspective of an Australian-Samoan. I argue that the author of Ecclesiastes wrote from a diasporic setting and that many of his sceptical views about Jewish wisdom and religion resonate with the suspicions of diasporic Samoans towards the faa-Samoa (traditional Samoan culture and way of life) and its lotu (worship). 

This is important to me because it’s not just a re-reading of Ecclesiastes, but also an attempt to understand the tensions between diasporic Samoans and Samoans living on traditional lands. The tension is intensified where first-generation, diasporic Samoans with traditional cultural values disagree with second-generation Samoans who struggle to understand the relevance of those values.

What opportunities do you especially appreciate as a PhD candidate at Whitley?

I really appreciate the relationships I have formed with faculty and fellow students. I’ve also enjoyed the opportunities to be involved with the many programs at Whitley which highlights the sense of community that exists here. I’ve also had the opportunity to further my professional development by teaching tutorial classes for Mark and speaking at seminars for programs such as TransFormation. Whitley also encourages attending seminars, so I have been privileged to attend SBL meetings in the last two years, where I was able to present papers and engage with other global scholars of the Hebrew Bible. 

How on earth do you manage the competing demands of family, study, ministry, leisure, sport?

It’s been good actually, I always prioritise my family, and then my studies, so everything else pretty much falls into place. For all the chaos that comes with COVID-19, it has been somewhat a blessing as it has allowed me to stay at home and focus on family and my studies.  

And, finally, which football code do you follow? Has there ever been a moment when you wondered whether you’d chosen the right code?

I had a feeling this question was going to pop up! I’m an avid rugby union and league fan. I support mainly Australian teams and Manu Samoa in rugby union. In rugby league, I’m a huge Melbourne Storm fan! I have been frustrated by the Wallabies losing constantly over the last few years, but with no international matches this year due to COVID, 2020 may be our best year yet!