Ten years ago, Rukingi Haupapa couldn't talk and needed photos of his whanau with their names on them around him to remind him who they were.

He was one of 8000 New Zealanders to suffer a stroke, which struck while he was asleep in bed.

"It probably took about six months to talk. Because it hit me when I was asleep, it's taken me basically 10 years to try to understand what happened to me, you wake up with it, couldn't talk, couldn't read, didn't know who was talking to me," he said.

But last month he celebrated gaining his masters degree from Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, surrounded at the graduation ceremony by his parents, wife, children and mokopuna.

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"The years following from my stroke I was trying to get out of the dark world I was in and trying to get into the light.

"The main thing I've learned is, a part of your brain dies, so it's a big deal and no matter how hard you work you will never get back to what you were because part of your brain is dead."

The struggle to recuperate affected his professional life.

He lost the job he'd had for six years with the Ministry of Education which he loved, working with iwi to support and develop Maori-specific plans. It was changed to a desk job.

"My doctor said I needed to get back to where I was before the stroke, which would help me possibly regain some of the memory loss," Mr Haupapa said.

"The job was not there to go back to. They had changed the position."

Mr Haupapa's first eight months back at work were frustrating.

"I was keen to get back to work and recapture what I had lost. But I was told not to step out of the office."

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In February 2006, Mr Haupapa decided to take early retirement.

Education was still to play a major role in his life but, instead of an administrative role, he returned as a student at Waikato University, to finish a Bachelor of Teaching.

It was something he had started in 1978 but this time was determined to complete.

He later completed his study in a Maori kaupapa environment at Te Wananga o Raukawa before doing his Masters degree in indigenous studies at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi.

"As part of my studies, I interviewed nine Maori whanau and learned the ways that they were able to survive and live, and want to share their learning with whanau who suffer strokes today and tomorrow," he said.

"It hasn't been easy but sometimes the best things in life never are. I sometimes find it hard to concentrate and my short-term memory has suffered since my stroke."

His experience and the strength he gained from having his family around him during his recuperation has prompted Mr Haupapa to set up a whanau support group for stroke victims.

"I'm really passionate about getting more exposure for the issue. Stroke is an illness that is not covered by ACC, therefore managing the costs in your household .. . affects the spouse and the whanau," he said.

"If the survivor is retired then things are a little easier as super benefits continue plus being able to receive the required home care support."