Completing her bachelor of arts (Māori) feels "surreal", says Janelle Whitiora, who came close to giving up on her degree.
Excited about graduating this week, Janelle is enjoying using te reo Māori in her new job as school secretary for EIT's Te Ūranga Waka.
Tertiary study was a challenging journey for the mother-of-four.
Of Ngāti Porou descent, Janelle grew up in Paekākāriki and attended Kāpiti College. After stints living in Sydney and on the Gold Coast, she moved to Hawke's Bay to be near her older sister, Renée. She was also keen for her daughters to attend St Joseph's Māori Girls College in Greenmeadows.
Settling back in New Zealand wasn't easy, however.
To support her family, Janelle had to go on to the benefit for six or seven months and, even after securing full-time work as a merchandiser, she felt something had to change if she was going to help herself and her children.
Janelle learnt te reo Māori at high school and understood what her Māori-speaking grandfather was saying.
"He started the first kura kaupapa in Dannevirke," she says.
Wanting to speak te reo and to "discover herself", she enrolled at EIT.
While she enjoyed the study, Janelle came close to giving up towards the end of her second degree year after her partner was made redundant and she was struggling to manage a part-time job and family and degree commitments.
"I was falling asleep in class and one day former lecturer Ahuriri Houkamau found me crying."
Ahuriri urged Janelle to keep going, helped prioritise her study commitments and pointed out that, having completed four semesters, she had only to study for two more to finish her degree.
"I feel very grateful to him for what he said that day."
Janelle had to deal with a further challenge when she broke her leg towards the end of 2016.
"It wasn't even playing sport," the talented athlete says.
"I was trying out my niece's skateboard, a Christmas gift. That was a bad idea – I didn't touch any of the toys last year!"
Having broken bones on both sides of her ankle, Janelle is working on her fitness so she can return to netball. Into basketball, netball and touch rugby at Kāpiti College, she has played softball and basketball at a representative level.
These days she plays wing defence and goalie for her whānau-based team, Toki Inc, winners of the netball premiership in Hawke's Bay.
Although her ankle injury came soon after her crisis of confidence in balancing study and work commitments, Janelle sees her injury as a good thing.
"It was the universe telling me to slow down. It made me stop and focus on my degree."
Now, having gained her qualification, she is finding the universe opening up for her.
"It's funny how many opportunities come up when you come to the end of your degree," she says.
"So many doors open, which they wouldn't if you didn't have a degree."