Ben Hill is a reporter for The New Zealand Herald

A standout student, and a life cut short: Kelston Girls College plans scholarship to honour popular teen

Devastated West Auckland school plans a scholarship in the name of 'a true role model'.
Penina Latu, who died last week after a short illness, had planned to study medicine next year. Photo / Supplied
Penina Latu, who died last week after a short illness, had planned to study medicine next year. Photo / Supplied

A West Auckland school will ensure the spirit of a standout student whose life was tragically cut short will live on with a scholarship in her honour.

Penina Latu, 17, a pupil at Kelston Girls College, was remembered as a humble high-achiever at her funeral on Saturday. The immensely popular Year 13 student died last week after a short illness.

Penina was a school prefect, and had been awarded a $12,000 scholarship to attend university where she planned to study medicine next year.

Her mother, Ofa, said Penina always strived for excellence in everything she did. "As a family we are very proud of her achievements, she really was that sort of girl who always tried to do well."

Although she is deeply distressed by Penina's death, Mrs Latu said being able to share her daughter's life brought her great joy.

"I was able to have a journey with my daughter for 17 years, that was a real blessing."

Mrs Latu said Penina was special to her as the third daughter of four children, and her two elder sisters and younger brother were struggling.

"It's very hard for them, it is so hard, because she isn't here with us any more. It is such a loss."

Kelston Girls students, teachers, and the Tongan community in Auckland were greatly affected by her daughter's death, and Mrs Latu was overwhelmed with the messages of support she had received.

"I really wasn't expecting it, she's touched a lot of people. I didn't realise Penina was so popular, that she had reached that level. I'm in shock, people are so caring."

Touching tributes to Penina had flooded in through social media, and she had received a letter of condolence from the Ministry of Education.

Mrs Latu did not want to discuss Penina's exact illness. But she said her daughter was "very peaceful" as her short life came to a premature end.

"She accepted what was happening, and she wasn't frightened. She even said if it's God's will, let it be."

I was able to have a journey with my daughter for 17 years, that was a real blessing.
Ofa Latu, Penina's mother

The teenager was deeply spiritual, and Mrs Latu said their family Bible was full of highlighter marks where Penina had picked out her favourite passages. "She printed them out and put them on her walls while she was studying. For her the Lord always came first."

Despite a constant stream of accolades and success her entire life, Penina remained humble.

"She would say to me 'Mum, stay low, stay humble'," Mrs Latu said. "She was always undercover like that, she let her success do the talking."

Penina's funeral was held at Wesley Methodist Church, where the New Zealand and Tongan flags were flown at half-mast and students from Wesley College performed a rousing haka to mark their respect.

Kelston Girls College principal Linda Fox said the school was devastated by the tragedy, and had plans to establish a scholarship in Penina's memory. "It's really affected the prefects here, they went to school with her for all those years and it's really had an impact on them.

"Everyone held her in high esteem. She was such a hard worker, she was a true role model and she was always so beautifully presented in her uniform."

Ms Fox said Penina would be greatly missed.

"Her beautiful smile and gracious manner will always be remembered by students and teachers. She was the sort of girl who would go out of her way to help others."

- NZ Herald

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