More than 30 years after completing her first te reo Māori certificate, Mereaera Hesketh (Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāti Hikairo, Ngāti Pahauwera, Ngāti Rākaipaaka, Ngai Te Ipu, Ngāti Hamua, Ngāti Hinemanu, Ngāti Rameka) is now graduating with a master of professional practice with distinction.
But so much has happened in between.
Mereaera started to study te reo Māori in the late 1980s at the Hawke's Bay Community College (former name of EIT) after working as a kaiāwhina at Ōmahu Kōhanga Reo.
During this time her eldest daughter attended Ōmahu Kōhanga Reo, and Mereaera was able to bring her eldest son, a baby at the time, to class. In the years that followed Mereaera gained a teaching diploma from Palmerston North Teachers' College followed by a bachelor of education at Massey University.
Until last year, she was teaching and working as assistant principal at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga.
Last year, after 18 years at the kura, Mereaera accepted a lead adviser role at the Ministry of Education.
"Many people have asked me why I was leaving the full-immersion Māori environment to work for a government institution. It certainly wasn't an easy decision, but I feel that my experience can benefit the ministry in further acknowledging Māori tikanga, building capabilities, capacities, and leadership."
Mereaera says that her mother Waipa Te Rito, who was an EIT tutor and worked for the NZ Kōhanga Reo Trust, had installed in her and her siblings the value of higher education.
It was always Mereaera's goal to write a research thesis as her mother did. Initially, she started her master's at Te Wānanga o Raukawa but when EIT introduced the master of professional practice she gladly returned to EIT.
"My lecturers were such great support in pointing me in the right direction. My research topic 'The value of tikanga Māori in a government institution' gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experience in te ao Māori and teaching practice.
Mereaera says her master's stimulated not only professional but also personal growth.
"Sometimes you don't realise how much knowledge you have until you study and do research. This knowledge is so valuable. I know that not everyone had the opportunity to experience what I experienced. Te ao Māori offers something for everybody, and I feel that it is my responsibility to share it."
Mereaera always took opportunities to improve, upskill and learn new things.
Last year, for instance, she completed a kai oranga level 3 course. The year prior she completed a postgraduate certificate in applied practice (digital and collaborative learning). Other past study has included courses in waka ama level 4 and small business level 3 as she is toying with the idea to launch a small side venture designing whakataukī and kīwaha t-shirts. Throughout her teaching career she has taken opportunities to attend te reo Māori courses to refresh her knowledge.
"It's heartening to see that people that I have taught as 5-year-olds went on to do degrees in te reo Māori and now move up the ladder. There are more and more young Māori people getting solid qualifications and pushing for change. We need these leaders in government institutions."
Despite the challenges of 2020, Mereaera has already made plans for further studies to start a doctorate in philosophy.
EIT will forever be a place that she holds in her heart. "I always supported EIT as EIT has always supported me. EIT offers such a great and diverse range of programmes. EIT accommodates the needs of our community and our diverse population, and there is certainly a great wairua."
Mereaera would like to acknowledge Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Incorporation and the Taiwhenua o Heretaunga for scholarships received to support her study.