PhD graduation comes after lifetime of challenges

By Talisa Kupenga

The road to academic success has been long and hard for Tahua O'Leary, but he has finally received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Auckland.

At 16-years-old he had dropped out of high school, was estranged from his family and was living on the streets, but it was on the streets that his path to academic excellence began.

It's been a 27-year-long journey but Tahua O'Leary has graduated with a PhD in Philosophy.

"I mean I find it surreal that I have a PHD," the 47-year-old says.

"I think my PHD is ridiculous and a failure because it took me 16-years to do it, but on the other hand I had heart-failure for seven of those years and two years of depression and in the middle of all of that my relationship still hasn't fallen apart which is great and I have a four-year-old daughter which is great."

So what kept him motivated to finish his study?

"Essentially bloody-minded stubbornness was one part of it", Dr O'Leary says.

"The other part was I had been really really lucky with the people I've run into in life who have helped me try to do things."

But as a youth, the road to academic success was not always so clear-cut.

"If you have a negative upbringing it is very very hard to get away from it and you do constantly have low expectations.
"So the hardest thing to do is to persuade yourself that you can actually do anything," he says.

"The gangs in Whangarei who were around started taking an interest in me and I realised I was kind of stuck and then I realised I literally wasn't and I could walk out of town. 

"So I just stuffed a bag full of clothes and just walked out of town that was the hardest thing to do."

Even during the dark times  says he always loved learning.

"One day I just kind of realised none of it made any sense; drinking a lot, going out and picking fights, sleeping rough, hassling people.

"I just stopped trying to get into trouble and just went back to reading books at the library whilst living on the streets because I like reading and it's a haven for me."

Despite his life challenges he says his biggest hurdle has been self-belief.

"The hardest part of trying to get out from under difficulties is finding a way on a daily basis to believe that you can.

"I mean believing it at any moment is easy, but every day? That's really hard."

Tahua is now seeking employment but also hopes to learn Māori alongside his 4-year-old daughter.