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SJU graduate, former adjunct professor and research associate gets New Zealand Fulbright Award

Tago Mharapara ’05 was 24 years old before he stepped onto the campuses at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict. But it was his experience as an international student from Zimbabwe in Collegeville and St. Joseph that awakened a desire for an academic career beyond his double-major in Psychology and Communications.

His path included a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma ’07 and a Ph.D. from the University of Auckland ‘17, allowing him to teach in one capacity or another for most of the last 15 years.

Now, more than a decade after he worked as an adjunct professor and research associate at CSBSJU, he’s reaching new heights as a scholar. In February, Mharapara was named a recipient of a 2022 New Zealand Fulbright Award that will make it possible to further his education at Brown University’s Policy Lab this fall.

The award aims to forge international collaboration and for recipients to have a transformational impact in their area of expertise. For Mharapara, a research lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, that involves investigating sustainability challenges for community-based midwives. He and his team recently received a grant of more than $1.3 million from New Zealand’s Health Research Council to continue such work.

“I was interested in getting a Ph.D. because of the exceptional teaching experiences I had at Saint John’s,” Mharapara said. “I say that not to make it sound fluffy or give you good copy. I was an average student who struggled to get good grades when I was in Zimbabwe. That was because the system rewarded the top performers.

“It doesn’t mean I didn’t have potential, but if you were not quickly identified as smart, you’d have a tough time being nurtured in paths you were interested in. When I came to Saint John’s, I found people that had time for my learning and my interests.”

Mharapara cites former chemistry professor Anna McKenna, who taught at CSB from 1983 until her retirement in 2018, as being key to his development during his first-year seminar then called symposium.

“She was the first person to make me feel comfortable in a new setting and it made all the difference,” Mharapara said.

In his first-year seminar, Mharapara met Tom Steingraeber ’05 and they became fast friends. They visited Steingraeber’s family in Spring 2002 at La Crosse, Wisconsin. It was after that Easter visit that Dr. Paul Steingraeber ’68 and his wife Jane donated a scholarship that allowed him to complete his studies at CSBSJU. His relationship with the McKennas and the Steingraebers continue to this day and a major highlight was when they traveled to New Zealand to celebrate Mharapara’s wedding to Bev Woelk.

Other mentors include Dr. Richard Wielkiewicz, a professor in the Psychology department, who “grew me as an individual,” and Dr. Steven Stelzner, another professor who specialized in organizational psychology, “fostered my desire and willingness to learn.”

“The whole department was exceptionally supportive,” Mharapara added. “I could name everyone there. Those were just the two at the top.”

Mharapara also feels indebted to Karyl Daughters, who in 2019 became chair of the communications department, and Julie Lynch, another of its professors.

“They all set me up to know and feel confidence,” Mharapara said. “I knew from an early point this was the field I wanted to be part of. I knew I wanted to come back to teaching at the college level because my experience had been life changing.”

During his second stint at CSB+SJU, Tago made another crucial decision. He and Bev had known each other in Zimbabwe and, as he came to America, she emigrated to New Zealand and became a citizen. In 2009, when she visited him on campus, they decided to give their relationship a chance. That meant he would move to join her.

A few years later, when their oldest son, Levi, was born with the aid of a midwife, Tago had a life-altering experience. As Bev underwent an induction, their midwife received a call that her father – hundreds of kilometers away – was dying.

“She basically said, ‘This is awful news, but I’m not going to leave until we birth this baby,’” Mharapara recalled. “I don’t know what happens in other people’s minds, but I’m not sacrificing the last moments of my parent’s life to finish a job. I was thankful at the time. Baby came. Everything went well. But I was reflecting a couple of weeks later, that was just a massive thing for somebody to say and do. Right then, I decided I wanted to know more about why our midwife was so dedicated to her role, she was willing to place her personal life on hold.”

That gave birth to research on the work and well-being of midwives in New Zealand, which has universally state-funded health care. Midwifery there, compared to the U.S., has a higher profile because the midwives are autonomous and can prescribe medication. The same midwife is available 24/7, comes to your home, and builds relationships before, during and after birth.

“I’m hugely concerned about the sustainability of this model,” Mharapara said. “It has excellent outcomes for the mother, the baby, and the families because it results in less invasive procedures like caesarian section births. But the wellbeing of the provider in such a demanding and disruptive model warrants further exploration.”

Mharapara wants to investigate whether appropriate funding is in place to support the profession so the midwives that exist don’t get burned out and potentially turn off future recruits. His research is showing that funding is inadequate, and part of his mission for going to Brown under the Fulbright Award is to learn how to elicit policymaker engagement. His work at the Policy Lab effectively will give him a crash course in lobbying.

On a broad scale, Mharapara is interested in industrial work and organizational psychology. He finds the most reward focusing on midwifery and early childhood education.

“I am motivated to study these professions because they are two highly feminized professions that are undervalued,” Mharapara said. “The pay, and the recognition, is just not where it should be.”

Bev, Levi (6) and 4-year-old twins Eli and Aria will join Tago during his residency in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s also had a paper on valuing midwives during the Covid-19 pandemic accepted for discussion at the American Psychological Association convention, Aug. 4-6, in Minneapolis, and wants to visit Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s and share his gratitude with current students.

He’d like to tell them of the benevolence of former mentors like Jon McGee, VP of planning and public affairs at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, who gave Mharapara the chance to showcase his ability with the Office of Institutional Planning and Research. And he’d probably relate how Dr. MaryAnn Baenninger, who served as CSB president from 2004-14, publicly recognized his contributions in important forums like CSBSJU’s Strategic Directions Council.

“It’s part of a broader narrative for me,” Mharapara said. “I’ve worked hard, and I am working hard, but I would say 80-85 percent of why I’ve gotten where I am is because of seizing opportunities that were made available to me by various people that came into my life. And for whom so much is given, a lot more is expected.

“Each of us have a story we tell about ourselves. Mine is that generous people have provided me with opportunities to use my talents.  It’s my responsibility to give back to the world that has given me so much.”  

Tago

Tago Mharapara ’05