Raiha Cook is studying students like herself, who struggled at university after a life of kura Māori learning (Photo: Supplied)

Language, and more: The challenges for kura Māori students arriving at university

Raiha Cook grew up attending kura Māori, but when she decided to study at the University of Otago she found the move from te ao Māori to European-style learning difficult. Now she’s researching that transition to help make it easier for students to feel safe at mainstream universities.

Set in the spray of Raukawa Moana, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito is a school of fewer than 100 students in Ōtaki, on the Kāpiti Coast. There, like most kura kaupapa, classes are taught in te reo Māori and te ao Māori practices underpin everything students do. 

Raiha Cook (Ngāti Raukawa ((Horowhenua/Manawatū), Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, Kāi Tahu) spent her whole life in Māori medium education, starting at a kōhanga reo and then moving on to study at TKKM o Te Rito. There, class sizes were small – she spent five days a week from 8am until 5pm in a class of six. Over 13 years she developed a strong, familial connection with her peers. They were whānau. 

She considers herself and her fellow students “raukura”, a word used to describe rangatahi who attended kura Māori from kindergarten through to high school.

Cook describes her immediate family, meanwhile, as “a bunch of geniuses”. Her parents met at university and her eldest brother and older sister both have tertiary qualifications too. Her parents work at the local wānanga in Ōtaki, Te Wānanga o Raukawa. Classes at the wānanga were offered to her and her classmates from year 11 onwards, but with her heart set on a career in medicine, Cook needed to go to university. 

Inspired by her parents and elder siblings, Cook always saw university as a viable option, but says for many of her classmates it was never on the table. She thinks it’s a shame university wasn’t marketed in the same way wānanga was, and it should be a responsibility of the universities and kura to reach out to each other.

“We were encouraged to look at what we would be doing after high school, but the easiest and the most viable option at the time was to go to the wānanga. A lot of the past raukura, if they went to university, they went somewhere close to Ōtaki. I think our teachers didn’t know who to contact or where to start in supporting us to go to tertiary institutions.”

When Raiha Cook arrived at the University of Otago Medical School, lessons taught in the English language were mostly new to her. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Cook first decided she wanted to study medicine, she wasn’t even aware the University of Otago had a medical school. While commonplace at euro-centric high schools, there weren’t university open days for the kura students, and it was up to Cook to figure out what she needed to do to get into university.

“I only had two options and that was Auckland or Otago, so I knew I would be going to a huge university. I was lucky that I got a year 13 science scholarship to come down [to the University of Otago] and do some mahi, so I got an idea of what university would look like past kura.”

While she says that scholarship was helpful, it couldn’t prepare her for the enormous culture shock of starting university the following year. 

“Even though there were other Māori students here, a lot of them didn’t have the same unique experience of schooling that I did. At home, 24/7 it was te ao Māori oriented, so coming here I thought my saviour was going to be the other Māori students. I didn’t realise how different we were.”

Lessons taught in the English language were mostly new to Cook. At kura her only classes not taught in te reo Māori were English and chemistry, which she took at the nearby Ōtaki College.

Cook had to learn how to take notes and understand complex medical concepts in English. In her first year she didn’t feel there was a space for her in the traditional colonial structures of university as she struggled with feeling like a troublemaker when she submitted her assignments in te reo Māori. She believes that’s a large reason why many raukura don’t go to mainstream universities.

“Going to university is daunting anyway but I feel like a lot of the kura kids think they’re too brown, because that’s definitely something that I felt – where do I fit in? There’s so many different subsets of Māori here, the ones who don’t really want to have anything to do with it, the ones who want to but don’t know what to do, and students like me who come from te ao Māori spaces and don’t know where to put ourselves.”

Now a third-year student, she’s a lot more confident in her culture and place at the university, and is about to lead a study she’s titled “An investigation into raukura integration into Euro-centric Otago University.” The study will focus on first-year health science students, noticing differences in the transition between high school and tertiary education for raukura versus students who come from mainstream schooling. Cook will use her own experience to inform the study.

“I felt in first year that I didn’t belong here, but now in third year I’m like ‘heck yeah I belong here, I deserve this as much as anyone else,’ and with that change in attitude, learning has become easier.”

Cook still takes her notes in te reo Māori, and writes her assignments and essays in reo Māori, too. The difference is she’s no longer afraid to rock the boat. She demands markers who can understand te reo and won’t apologise for asking more from the university.

“Even though I spent 18 years in kura, it was getting thrown into the deep end that reinforced who I am and where I’m from. Because of that I don’t really put up with anything like that. I’m just doing what I can as a student.”

She hopes her experience and research will help other raukura feel more empowered to join mainstream universities without having to pack their culture away. And she wants to see further steps taken to ensure they’re supported when they join their new environment.

“When you get to a tertiary space, it doesn’t matter if it’s wānanga or university, it’s being able to trust in your abilities that really pushes you through. Even when you’re going through times where it feels like too much, it’s about being true to who you are and what you know and what you believe in.”




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