A Gate Pa 20-year-old, who left school at 16 and was told she would be back at school in a week, has won the Prime Minister's Scholarship to intern for the United Nations in Cambodia.

Jolene Skeen, who attended Tauranga Girls' College and St Mary's Catholic School, began her tertiary study after she left high school, and is now set to finish a double degree and a graduate diploma.

"I remember getting told I was too young to do this, and that I'd be back in school within the next week.

"The social aspect was challenging, but it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be.


"I'm in my last year of law, political science, and I'm just about finished my graduate diploma in Japanese," she said.

She began law and political science after she found "there was just something missing".

In her first two years of university, she worked 20 hours a week at Countdown to pay for her studies, with help from her parents.

"They're really supportive, they've supported me so much all the way through. I was only 16 when I started and they've been amazing."

Miss Skeen will be in Cambodia for 12 weeks at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, helping with research around "one of the worst genocides of the 20th century".

"I was talking to Silvia Cartwright the other day, she's an in-court judge there.

"It's assisting a judge, doing some research for them and legal drafting. It depends on what chamber you get put in, but there is interaction with the victim and the witnesses."

She had applied for masters courses in the United States and Australia and hopes to start when she returns from Cambodia.

"I've applied to UC Berkley, Harvard and Columbia, and Melbourne in Australia.

"I think Harvard is kind of like a novelty application, I'd absolutely love it, that'd be the dream and I'd love to go to Melbourne as well."

Her passion was international criminal law.

"I would love to be a terrorism intelligence researcher. I'd love to be a spy. I do martial arts so it's kind of the combination," she said.

"Just working alongside the government and analysing information."

In her spare time, she volunteers as a refugee support case worker with the Red Cross.

"I watched on Al Jazeera the refugee camp [coverage] and it motivated me.

"This year I got a family from Eritrea, they're lovely. We set up their house, we make sure their bills get paid, make sure WINZ is sorted, banks are sorted."

She said her parents were part of the reason she had been able to achieve so much.

"I think my parents really installed a strong work ethic and once I put my mind to something, it's go, go, go until you achieve it.

"I think you just have to put your mind to it. Look up, research what you can do and how you can do it and just do it. Don't listen to what other people say."

Miss Skeen is also a law reform coordinator for Law for Change, and a director on the Waikato Students' Union.