A Samoan civil engineer has been honored by the University of Auckland’s prestigious 40 Under 40 for 2020, awarded to inspiring alumni aged 40 and under.
Daughter of Samoa Lands and Titles Court Judge, Tuala Aveau Niko Palamo and Lemalu Lina Slade-Palamo; Natalia Palamo attended Leififii Intermediate and Samoa College in Samoa before she left for New Zealand to attend the University of Auckland where she graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering with Honors in 2010.
In the official announcement, the University states that, “40 Under 40 honours alumni who have been making an impact in their professional and personal lives since graduation..”
“You are selected from the University’s growing network of over 200,000 alumni worldwide, and we would like to celebrate your achievements and to inspire future and current students to make a difference in the world..”
This is the fourth year the Univeristy have recognised 40 Under 40 alumni and the 2019 40 Under 40 Honors List included Palamo’s cousin Karena Lyons – Solicitor and now Vice President and Director of Research for the East-West Centre, after representing New Zealand overseas as one of the country’s youngest ever diplomats.
The two young women are great-grandchildren of Feagaiga Masinalupe, nee Anapu Tuimuaiava; from Safaatoa and Faleaseela Lefaga, Saanapu and Leauvaa.
Natalia recalls that it was Karena who helped her fill in her application form for Engineering at Auckland University.
“Karena actually helped me apply for my Bachelors for Engineering. I sat in her office and we did it on her computer!”
For the past four years, Natalia Palamo has been a Senior Engineer at the Department of Port Administration in American Samoa, with responsibility for airport and seaport projects.
Prior to this, she worked for Beca Group on airport pavements, storm water and inspections and also on land damage assessments following the Christchurch earthquake.
She is 31 and lives in the capital, Pago Pago. She holds two matai titles from Upolu; Makemakeomalo from her Mom’s family in Sapunaoa Falealili, and Sailimalo from her Dad’s family in Vaimoso.
Natalia Palamo is an airport nerd. “Every airport that I go to, I’m always looking out the window at the pavement and the lights,” she admits.
“The best part of travelling is always getting to the airport.”
She decided airports were awesome during her second year at Engineering School, when alumnus Wharehuia Dixon came to speak to the students.
“Before that, for me, engineering was roads and buildings, but he presented on his project at Auckland Airport and that made me think, ‘oh, wow, it’s actually a lot bigger than roads, and planes are way cooler’.
“I decided that given the opportunity, that’s where I wanted to go, I wanted to be able to walk where the planes were. It’s pretty much the same thing as building roads, but the details around it were so much more high risk. It just grabbed my attention. So far it’s working out really well.”
Natalia arrived at Auckland Uni straight from the National University of Samoa’s University Preparatory Year (UPY); and despite all her schooling having been in Samoa, had to put herself through University, having been unable to qualify for a Samoa Government scholarship because of her dual NZ citizenship.
With hard work and determination, Palamo made the Honors program which caught the attention of Beca Group. Asia Pacific’s largest independent advisory, design and engineering consultancy group offered Palamo a job before she had even graduated from Auckland University.
Before airports, she was a maths nerd, encouraged by her father, a former maths teacher.
University was tough at first, especially being away from family, but she began to relish the independence.
“I got pushed out of my comfort zone a lot. I guess that I just grew in self-confidence.” The South Pacific Indigenous Engineering Students (SPIES) group was her home away from home.
“Knowing that other students are going through the same thing and you’re not alone.”
One major lesson that has endured from her university study is time management.
“Balancing all the work of engineering and trying to have a social life on the side, as well as family and church commitments. Also prioritising what I do need to do and what I can say no to.” The other lesson is teamwork.
“One of the biggest things was learning that you can’t do everything on your own. Building a strong team around you and relying on them and delegating has definitely contributed to where I am today.”
Natalia has also learned a lot about “managing people and men and their egos” during her time in American Samoa, especially when she first arrived.
“I was the youngest in the room and I was a girl, and I was the client, and I was the one telling them what we wanted for the projects.”
There’s been a lot of learning on the job, as the department also oversees American Samoa’s seaports – and then there’s dealing with rising sea levels and the occasional hurricane. There have been two since Natalia has lived there and three near misses.
She is then tasked with making sure the airport is up and running as soon as possible so that vital emergency supplies can get in and out to the outer islands. Her next big project is shoreline protection as “all of our airports are next to the ocean”.
Natalia has not planned her career so much as grabbed opportunities with both hands. “My greatest accomplishment is that 10 years later, I still love the job. I’m proud that I can provide for my family doing something that I enjoy.”
With her one-year-old son, she is putting down roots in American Samoa and, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a constant in her future.
“I do believe I’ll still be an airport engineer, so I’ll be working at an airport somewhere, either here or back home in Samoa.”