The beautiful Ōtākou Marae and some of the first year Māori students (Photo: Brian Treanor)

Welcome home: How first year Māori students find a place at the University of Otago

To open the year at the University of Otago, hundreds of first year Māori students and their families gathered at Ōtākou marae to be welcomed onto the whenua of Ngāi Tahu. Alice Webb-Liddall went along.

It was the first day of O Week and the Dunedin sun was shining on the thousands of fresh-faced students who were figuring out where to buy a cheap sheet for toga, and how to get from their college to the lecture theatres, and back again, without getting lost along the way. For many it was their first chance to leave home, the first step in an ascent to independence, and there was a palpable sense of excitement and nervousness across the campus. 

At Te Huka Mātauraka, the Māori centre, the beginning of each academic year is a crucial time. On their small corner of the campus, work was underway for weeks organising the pōwhiri that welcomes hundreds of Māori students into their new home at the University of Otago. The ceremony at Ōtākou marae on the Otago peninsula provides an opportunity for the first year students to connect with other Māori and start to find their place in the world of the university.

That warm O Week morning, hundreds of nervous Māori students gathered at Te Huka Mātauraka. The line snaked down Castle St as students waited to be filed through the offices, where they were handed t-shirts, chicken wraps, fruit and water bottles before making their way through to the courtyard to mingle and share their whakapapa with their first year cohort. “Where are you from?” fast became the question of the day. 

Reiata Phillips Hei Hei (Ngāpuhi) was one of this growing number huddled under the shade sail. Summer school set her up with a small group of friends who also attended the pōwhiri. Sitting at a table, the three friends flicked through pamphlets from various Māori groups who came through the centre that morning. Lolly bribes from the Māori students’ dental association provided a much needed, if not slightly ironic, boost of energy for some of the students who’d been up all night unpacking their rooms and making new friends.

Phillips Hei Hei was excited to experience a Ngāi Tahu pōwhiri. Her parents had flown down from the Far North to be there for the day and she hoped the hospitality would help her mum come to terms with her big move south. The first year health science student had attended kura Māori in Kaikohe, and as the first in her family to attend university had no idea what to expect.

“You try to picture something in your mind and you have expectations but I knew nobody coming down here. I was the only one from Kaikohe coming down here so I was a bit nervous,” she said.  

“At home there were roughly 13 or 14 kids in my class and some of them I knew from kohanga, so I’ve been with them throughout my whole life.”

She was nervous to move so far away from home, but had wanted to go to university since she was young and knew the University of Otago had one of the best health science faculties in the country. It was her mum who took some convincing.

“My mum brought up all of the applications for Auckland Uni and I was like ‘Oh, mum… I was looking at going to Otago,’ and she was like ‘What! That’s so far, why so far!’ so there were a few moments of her crying to me about that.” 

Staff at Te Huka Mātauraka understand the importance of this pōwhiri for not just their students but whānau as well. Most of the parents who attend the pōwhiri are seeing their children leave home for the first time, and it’s important that they know their child is going into safe hands.

Pearl Matahiki (Ngāti Porou) has been at the University of Otago, in various roles, for over 25 years. She retired in February after almost 20 years as tumuaki of Te Huka Mātauraka. This was her last O Week pōwhiri. 

When she started as a student at the university, options for Māori student support were nowhere near where they are now. Matakihi understands that for Māori students, there’s more to university than just leaving home to study. Her role has been about helping them find their place in the world as they embark on their new life at the university. 

“There are so many students who don’t know who they are and the Māori centre can help to link them up to their whakapapa; and there are also students like me who knew who we were and knew where we fit into te ao Māori but we were lost in this Pākehā world.”

The bus ride out to Ōtākou Marae is a quiet one. It takes about 30 minutes along the winding Portobello Road of the Otago Peninsula, while students sit, with minimal chatter, taking in the sea views and trying to hold back the queasiness brought on by a mixture of nerves and potholes.

Ōtākou Marae (Photo: Alice Webb-Liddall)

Nestled in the hill beside the maunga Te Atua o Taiehu is the beautiful Ōtākou Marae. One of the locations of the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, the marae holds deep cultural and historical significance in Te Wai Pounamu. 

Covid-19 measures meant the pōwhiri itself ran differently from how it usually would. Students were told before walking onto the ātea that there would be no harirū, and instead were asked to take one deep breath together.

Whaikōrero acknowledged their new beginnings, the journey students are about to embark on and the parents who brought them this far. The kōrero acknowledged the Christchurch earthquake, 10 years ago to the day, and gave a directive to students to truly make the most of the time they now have to learn, make mistakes and grow.

Kai was eaten, tea was sipped and the students all spent some time getting to know each other against the backdrop of the Ōtākou harbour.

The difference between the bus ride out and the bus ride back was astonishing. It was a sign that the pōwhiri had done its job, said Matakihi.

“It’s quite quiet when they come out here, but when they get back on the bus in the afternoon the sound, that’s the magic because you know that they’re going to be alright. Their parents are alright and they’re comfortable.”

Skyla Anderson-Wynn (Ngāpuhi) is also the first of her family to attend university. She was the dux at Tikipunga High School in Whangārei in 2020, and begins a conjoint Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Arts and Commerce this year. She has only recently begun her journey into learning more about her whakapapa. 

The child of a Māori adoptee, Anderson-Wynn wasn’t brought up in te ao Māori, but has spent the last few years working towards a fuller understanding of her taha Māori. She’s never been to her marae, and knew the visit to Ōtākou would be a different experience to the Ngāpuhi pōwhiri she’d been to before. Despite the dialect and tikanga differences, she said the pōwhiri helped her find a sense of home in Dunedin.

“I enjoyed it a lot more than I was anticipating, I do get quite nervous when it comes to the harirū, but I really enjoyed when we all breathed in together, that was so significant to me because it really felt like I was breathing in the next chapter of my life.”

Skyla Anderson-Wynn (left) and Reihata Phillips Hei Hei (right) Photos: Supplied

In what promises to be a full-on year of study for Phillips Hei Hei, the pōwhiri gave her a connection to her new home. And importantly it helped her parents come to terms with having their eldest daughter 1,600km away.

“It put mum a bit at ease, she met a lot of the people from Kōhatu and the Māori centre and I think talking to them really helped her know that I was in good hands here.”

Despite almost daily messages from her whānau back up in Te Tai Tokerau reminding her of the space she’s left behind, Phillips Hei Hei can already visualise Dunedin becoming a new kind of papa kāinga for her over the next few years. She wants others who have grown up in te ao Māori to understand that university is an option, and they’re never going to be alone if they embark on a tertiary journey in a traditionally Pākehā setting. 

“Give it a go, because you never know if you don’t try. There are going to be some obstacles on the way but there’s always a lot of help and support  everywhere, and in the end if it’s something you want to do, just follow it and go hard.”

For Anderson-Wynn, being Māori is something that she’s growing prouder of by the day. She’s still learning about herself and the world she missed out on growing up in, but that process of discovery has been a rich cultural experience that’s only just begun. 

“Everyone grows up differently, but the more I talk about how much I love being Māori, the more the standard grows for how much I should know about it. If it was handed to me I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It’s a journey that I’m so happy to be on.”

She’s happy that spaces like Te Huka Mātauraka exist for her to continue to explore her own story, with people who understand its importance. 

“Where I’m staying at the moment, sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in, but when I walked down to the Māori centre I felt like I was at home, ‘I haven’t met you guys but you’re my people’.”




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