Manus Islander uni graduate calls on PNG women to chase dreams, challenge cultural norms

Sophie Sindra Hepota was still breastfeeding her youngest of three children when she tearfully waved goodbye as she left to study overseas, unaware it would be three years before she saw them again.

“That was a huge sacrifice,” she said.

“It was very hard for me, but I told myself that I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for my children’s future as well.”

In her home country of Papua New Guinea (PNG), where one person’s success can change the fortunes of an entire community, opportunities to study in Australia do not come easily.

“What I’ve achieved is not only [for] me as a person, but it is very significant to my tribe, to my clan, and an inspiration to all my cousins and sisters from my father’s side,” Sophie said.

So it was with a mix of excitement, sadness and responsibility that Sophie boarded a plane in 2020 to study a Bachelor of Occupational Health and Safety at Rockhampton’s Central Queensland University on an Australia Awards Scholarship.

Amid a pandemic, the 37-year-old persevered to finish her degree with distinction in a diverse regional community almost 2,400 kilometres away from her island home.

Raising seven brothers
Sophie and her seven brothers grew up on Manus Island and lived for the sun, sand, and sea, having originated from a chieftainship tribe on their father’s side.

“We hold our culture and traditions very strongly and the island has a total of 30 languages,” she said.

Sophie was in grade 6 when her dad died. Six years later, Sophie lost her mum two months before her year 12 exams.

“We were more or less orphaned,” she said.

“I had to raise my seven brothers at the same time [as] juggling my schooling. It wasn’t easy.”

Sophie said PNG society and culture embodied the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”.

Her dad’s eldest sister Mary Chapman helped pay Sophie’s tuition fees from high school through to her first university degree in PNG.

CQUniversity’s Barbara Miller worked with Sophie as part of an 18-month, women in leadership initiative.

“She is such an inspirational woman who will take every opportunity and make the absolute most of it,” Barbara said.

A home away from home
Back at the start of her 15-year career in the field of environment, health and safety — specifically water and sanitation — Sophie discovered “weak” and “outdated” laws.

Urged to “do something”, Sophie set a goal to see PNG’s workplace health and safety legislation reviewed and updated.

“I wanted a certain set of skills and knowledge that would be able to give me the confidence to actually contribute and participate,” she said.

Sophie chose CQUniversity to help her reach that goal, believing the specific degree would give her the right mix of skills and knowledge required in real work environments across various industries.

“[Including] what are their rights, and how people can hold accountable employers and the hierarchy in providing that sort of safe and healthy environment,” she said.

Sophie said she was the only student in her scholarship cohort to go regional.

“Rocky [Rockhampton] was the best,” she said.

The warm climate and mountainous landscape felt homely, but whenever homesickness or stress crept in, Sophie was lured to the beach at Yeppoon.

“I would just go and dip my feet into the sand and just smell the ocean and the sea breeze. For me it was like therapy,” she said.

Returning post-graduation to PNG
In Sophie’s family, the sacrifice was shared by her husband, Major Randall Hepota, who raised their children, Ezra, 10, Patricia, 9, and Hezekiah, 4, while juggling his own military career.

“There are social and cultural biases where women are supposed to be confined to the kitchen, child-bearing and normal domestic chores,” she said.

“All I can say is, I’m so thankful.”

Her family’s constant assurances kept Sophie going.

“As a technical degree, it was hard. Sometimes I felt like, ‘Why am I doing this? Should I just give up and go?'” she said.

Sophie marked the completion of her degree in an intimate ceremony at CQUniversity’s Brisbane Campus, due to the strict conditions of her visa.

She has mixed emotions as she prepares to fly home this week, but plans to return for a proper graduation ceremony next year.

“It’s a way of saying thank you to everyone that contributed in one way or another, when I lost both my parents, to my goals and ambitions,” Sophie said.

“This is just the beginning because I do have dreams of continuing to postgraduate and eventually, if all goes well, a PhD.”

A message to young women
Sophie wants to remind the next generation that “the sky is no limit”.

“All those young Manus Island girls, you can dream big and go far beyond the horizon and go beyond our ocean,” she said.

“All you have to do is rise up to the challenge and don’t limit yourself to our cultural way of staying back on the island and that’s it.

“I always say, ‘You can only go as far as you want to go.'”