Aya Morris has been chosen as a 2022 Fulbright Science and Innovation Graduate, a win that has granted her a USD$31,000 scholarship and the rare opportunity to join a team of researchers at the prestigious Columbia University in New York City.
At the end of this month, Morris will travel to America and spend six months researching sustainable development and resilience in coastal communities as part of her work towards a Master of Sustainable Development Goals at Massey University.
She'll return to the Far North with valuable information about the efficacy of climate change measures.
Although 40-year-old Morris has spent the better part of the last 20 years studying, she is about to focus exclusively on her education for the first time in as many years.
"This will be the first time I'll be studying without also working and taking care of children," she said with a soft chuckle.
Morris became a mother at 18 and started her first university paper at 20, because she'd won a scholarship from Opononi Area School which would have expired if she hadn't taken it.
She completed her bachelor's degree over nine years of part-time study and graduated at 30.
Her general advice was to "give education a go."
Morris was born in a house-truck in Kohukohu and grew up in a small home in the native forest with four younger siblings. There, her family relied on alternative energy sources, keeping livestock, and growing fruit orchards and vegetable gardens as part of their everyday life.
"We spent a lot of time in nature, learning about native trees and plants, growing our own food and catching our own fish."
She was brought up in a family that encouraged involvement in education and was read to a lot, which she cited as a key formative influence.
"We didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of books," Morris said.
"Mum was a librarian, so we had many books that were rejected from the library given to us for free."
Morris attributed her interests in environmental sustainability and social justice to these early life experiences, among others.
"I was fortunate to grow up with Māori culture as part of my everyday life," she said.
"Every school day included karakia (prayers), hīmene (hymns) and waiata (song). Until I grew up, I didn't realise that this wasn't the same everywhere else."
As an adult, Morris studied Māori language and culture and now possesses an intermediate level of spoken fluency and literacy in the language.
Last week, she travelled to the National Library in Wellington to attend the Fulbright Awards ceremony and induction programme, hosted by Hon Aupito William Sio, Minister for Pacific Peoples and Minister for Courts.
While there, she also took part in an induction programme alongside the other 2022 grantees, which she said was a good bonding experience.
Part of the programme included sharing about a precious object that would give cultural insight into the person and their role as an ambassador for New Zealand.
Morris shared a taonga that had been carved by her father from a Pacific Ocean mother-of-pearl oyster shell, and which he based on a drawing of hers.
The carving is significant because her research focuses on coastal resilience, climate change, and its impacts on the water cycle.
"When I was about six years old my dad joined a Māori carving course, and as kids, we spent many happy hours playing with all the other kids whose parents were on the carving course," Morris said.
"Our dad taught us all how to carve, and after I found out that I had won the Fulbright scholarship, my Dad carved this taonga for me.
"He and my Mum brought it around to my house and gave it to me as a surprise."
Hers was one of approximately 100 applications made, and although good academic grades were important, Fulbright said they sought people with great ambassadorial qualities who could build connections and foster ongoing relationships between scholars in the U.S. and here in NZ.
Morris said it was easy for people to mistakenly think scholarships weren't for them, or were too big an achievement to be within their reach.
"But if you don't apply, you'll never get there."
She also said Kiwis were well-positioned to excel in international academic settings.
Through the induction programme, Morris learned of New Zealand scholars who are actually finding their overseas study easier than what they had done here.
"Kiwis have a strong focus on critical thinking."
Morris has also received a $3,000 scholarship from Northland Regional Council, and credited her employer - Internal Affairs - for being hugely supportive of her studies.
In her application to Fulbright, Morris focused on many of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals and described herself as an advocate for the development of locally-led initiatives to preserve and restore water quality.
"As we all know, the Pacific nations are some of the nations which will be most greatly affected by climate change and rising sea levels, particularly Aotearoa New Zealand," Morris said.
"We need to be thinking in a much more long-term and intentional way about the decisions we make about the management of marine coastal and freshwater environments."