Tolaga Bay student’s amazing journey

Tolaga Bay student’s amazing journey at Otago inspires winning idea 

by University of Otago
When Grant Kingi got off the plane at Dunedin Airport in 2011, ready to begin his experience at the University of Otago, he felt the anxiety more acutely than the majority of would-be students. At 16, he was younger than most; his home in aqua-blue Tolaga Bay (Uawa) on the remote East Coast of the North Island seemed a whole world away from the gothic and Scottish-styled Dunedin; in fact, he had never been this far from home. He expected to be cold so had dressed warmly. But that threw him too, as Dunedin can, because he arrived on a blistering hot day.

Despite his youth, Grant was already conscious he needed to fight a particular stereotype; this was an important chance to stave off the social disadvantage that he felt could easily have sucked him under.

He hoped this would be his big break, and would allow him to garner an education that would lead to freedom. He found the words of his father helped as he thought about the effort that was to come: “If you’re going to go to sleep all day… don’t expect to be paid.”

“Culturally I was initially lost,” the 20-year old believes looking back now. “Where I am from is steeped in Māoridom, and you can feel isolated from the world. When I was 15, I began reading James Belich’s history and found a sense of belonging in that. Other authors included (Dame) Claudia Orange, and (the late) historian Michael King; authors who were not one-sided towards Māori or the Crown. I was trying to understand what had happened. I read about Hone Heke who thought trade and opportunities would come, and I read about the rebel and revolutionary Te Kooti,” he says.

At Tolaga Bay Area School, he met Dr Paratene Ngata on a University of Otago-run Science Wānanga; a two to three-day marae-based interactive science programme developed collaboratively between the iwi and the University. It targets secondary school students as they prepare for NCEA.

These Wānanga were developed in response to the late Dr Ngata’s wish to see more Ngāti Porou rangatahi achieving in science, so that they would be in a better position to enter into science disciplines and professional programmes in health sciences at university, as well as being better equipped to manage local resources.

The Wānanga at his school was Grant’s first introduction to the University of Otago and opened his eyes to the joys of science. From there, he learned about the Tū Kahika health sciences pathway into the University, a foundation programme that helps prepare Māori students for the highly competitive health sciences first year and mentor them through what can seem like a complex myriad of hoops to jump when beginning study at Otago. He was successful in his application and was offered a place on the 2011 Tū Kahika programme.

Grant was assisted and mentored initially by Associate Professor Joanne Baxter and Zoe Bristowe, who run Tū Kahika. “They were basically my parents for a while,” he remembers. And he chose St Margaret’s College as his first-year home away from home.

“The building was like something out of Harry Potter - fantastic. People cooked your food for you,” he says with a broad grin. “Suddenly I had to think about things like rent, shopping and washing, and learning to live with others.

“Back in Tolaga Bay, 99.9 per cent of the population is Māori. But here at St Margaret’s, I was living with Americans, Canadians, people from India, and China. I realised I didn’t know humanity, but then I realised that culturally we are all different but we all want the same thing – happiness,” he says. He adds he was inspired by all the “passionate people” he met while living at the College.

“These are the sort of people who say they’ll do something, and they do it,” he says.

This year, 2015, is his final one, and he will graduate with a degree in psychology; eventually he hopes to become a clinical psychologist. His ultimate goal is to do his part to remove discrimination and stigma in the world. In December last year, along with a team of other senior undergraduate Māori students, he participated in the He Kākano student enterprise programme run out of the Otago Business School. His team, consisting of Eli Toeke (Philosophy and Law) , Jordan Brewer (Otago Polytechnic, HR Diploma) and Hori Barsdell (Māori Studies and Physical Education, Honours), took out the top prize. They developed an iPhone-based application that works as a self-reflection tool. Called “My Sanctuary”, it can be used to diary ideas, dump thoughts, draw out problems and “separate the gold from the dirt”. It has a real basis in psychology, and very much also in Grant’s own experience of life.

“As a science student, your mind is always asking questions, and you realise that knowledge helps make life easier. With this app, it is there 24/7 – it can be an extension of therapy, particularly helpful when you can’t talk to anybody, or no-one is available to see you,” he says. The first prize is $1000 to invest in the project.

He Kākano is a four-week-long University/Otago Polytechnic collaboration with PowerHouse Ventures and Te Puni Kōkiri, and aims to foster a culture of Māori entrepreneurship among the students. Twelve Māori students from across the four academic divisions of the University and four from the Otago Polytechnic, most of whom were final year students with an interest in entrepreneurship, took part in the programme, culminating in the students pitching a business idea to a ‘Taniwha Den’ of judges.

When Connection caught up with Grant, he was flush from the final prize-winning ceremony, and getting ready to head home to beautiful Tolaga Bay to catch up with his whānau and for a well-earned break.

“I miss home so much, but I don’t want to go back without something. I want to go back with an asset, knowing I haven’t wasted my time.”

Funnily enough, wasting time isn’t on the agenda for this impressive and incredibly grateful young man.

E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea.

I will never be lost, for I am a seed sown in Rangiātea.