Handing in the last bit of paper that would guarantee a graduation cap was meant to bring happiness and relief.

But it was a day of mixed emotions for Seini Mafile'o Maka, who was told her husband had died just minutes after submitting her last university assignment.

The 60-year-old, who hails from Tonga, was among thousands of students who graduated from the University of Auckland last week; completing a Bachelor of Education (Teaching).

Like many others who donned robes on Queen St, she had come a long way to get to the end of her degree.

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But exactly how painful the past few months had been for her was only made known publicly during a speech on the morning of her big day.

Speaking at a special breakfast for students graduating in Pacific Studies, she revealed how the last day of her university studies had become the first day without her dear husband, Sitaleki Maka.

After suffering from a stroke several years ago, he was taken to hospital last September.

In early October, Seini was completing her final assignment - a poem about her dream for education in the future.

"I was doing [my poem] while he was lying on the bed. That was my last paper.

"He told me: 'Go home and have a rest'.''

"I told him: 'It's finished and I need to submit it'.''

Her husband asked whether she was sure it was ready.

"I read my poem to him and he was laughing."

She arrived home, in West Auckland, and submitted her poem with a smile.

"I sat down and just finished my prayer because I was happy.

"During my prayer, the telephone was ringing. I didn't touch it - my daughter answered it.

"I was shocked because she was crying. She said: 'Dad has passed away'.''

Seini Mafile'o Maka, 60, graduated with a Bachelor of Education from the University of Auckland last week. Photo / University of Auckland
Seini Mafile'o Maka, 60, graduated with a Bachelor of Education from the University of Auckland last week. Photo / University of Auckland

Maka, a mother to five children and 18 grandchildren, said her husband had always been a huge supporter of her going to university, after deciding to do so in 2013.

She shared her story at the breakfast after getting there by mistake.

She and her family had been heading to another special breakfast being held for education students, but had become lost.

Labour MP Jenny Salesa - whose husband, Professor Damon Salesa - teaches at the university, spotted them and extended an invitation for them to stay; which they accepted.

Each graduating student is invited to give a short speech to thank their families and Maka was invited on stage also.

Jenny Salesa said of Maka's speech: "She was the second-to-last speaker and, in my opinion, her speech was the most heartwarming to all of us.

"Those who were not already crying started crying when she talked of her husband and how he was dying and still encouraged her to complete her degree.''

Maka said she felt she had been guided to the event especially to share her story.

The whole day felt special, she says, as she remembered her late husband as well as her parents, her late mother Mele Mafile'o and 83-year-old father Sami Mafile'o, who could not fly over for her ceremony.

His dream has always been for her to further her education, she said.

When it came time to walk across the stage to receive her degree, she became emotional and raised a fist in salute to her loved ones.

Speaking through tears, she said: "When they called my name, I remembered my parents and I remembered my husband - I felt he was walking with me.''

Seini Mafile'o Maka says she was motivated by her husband and parents (pictured) Sami and Mele Mafile'o. Photo / Supplied
Seini Mafile'o Maka says she was motivated by her husband and parents (pictured) Sami and Mele Mafile'o. Photo / Supplied

- Additional reporting by Simon Collins.