COMMENT

by Korey Te Hira

Attending Harvard University for the past two years has been a life-changing experience, and I believe New Zealand will benefit if more Kiwis get the chance to pursue their academic dreams at institutions like it.

Unfortunately, exorbitant financial costs and a lack of support during the admission process for aspiring students discourages people from applying, and New Zealand suffers because of it.

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Coming from a working-class family in West Auckland, studying at a place like Harvard never seemed realistic. Even when dreaming what it might be like I often felt ridiculous just thinking it was a possibility.

Despite this self-doubt, I decided to try my luck after I had a chance encounter with an acquaintance who happened to be pursuing a Master in Public Policy, the degree I was interested in.

I invested countless hours studying for admissions tests, painstakingly working on my resume, and gathering recommendation letters. I ended up with what I hoped was a competitive application, but in reality, I had no idea whether it was.

Fortunately, I was admitted! I thought the hardest part was over – but I couldn't have been more wrong.

Korey Te Hira had to raise almost $230,000 to study at Harvard. Photo / File
Korey Te Hira had to raise almost $230,000 to study at Harvard. Photo / File

I soon realised I had to find almost a quarter of million dollars to cover costs for my two-year degree.

After pooling the modest scholarships I had received, draining my parents of all they could provide, and maxing out my foreign student loans, I was still tens of thousands of dollars short.

So I went to extended family, friends, and acquaintances, asking for any donations they could spare. Their generosity was humbling. Unfortunately, I still had to find more.

Anxiety setting in, my brother and sister-in-law, recently married and planning to have a child, volunteered to increase their mortgage so I could hit my target.

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Despite all of this, I do not regret coming to Harvard.

All of the advantages you would expect from attending a place like this are real: the network of amazing classmates, training provided by world-class academics and practitioners, and access to inspirational guest speakers. I even had the chance to work in the Governor of Colorado's office last summer.

However, during a moment of reflection, I realised that New Zealand's lack of representation at universities like this means our country is missing out.

Many of my classmates are planning to return home and use what they have learned at Harvard to tackle the big issues facing their countries. With thousands of students around the world beginning programmes at elite universities every year, countries that support their citizens studying at these institutions stand to reap significant benefits in the future.

In my opinion, New Zealand is wasting these opportunities while other countries gladly seize them.

I eventually found a small group of Kiwi students at Harvard and discovered that most people's inspiration to apply came from some fortuitous event or unexpected interaction – coming here did not seem to be part of anyone's "plan".

And, especially for the graduate students, we all tried not to think about the years it will take to repay the debt we now shoulder.

My experience, it seems, was not unique after all. This got me thinking: why does it have to be this hard?

For our most promising athletes, society creates deliberate pathways that they follow all the way to sporting glory. Why then do we not do the same for people, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds or of Māori or Pasifika descent, who have the potential to succeed academically at world-class universities, but face structural barriers to do so?

The good news is there are steps we can take to help.

We need to first reset our expectations for what is possible. The next time a promising student expresses a desire to apply to Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or a similar university, we need parents, teachers, and professors to believe in them, and commit to helping them explore their potential.

We also need to provide more avenues of financial support to help pay for this education. Increased philanthropic support or opening up the national Study Link student loan scheme to people studying overseas can make this challenge not quite so intimidating.

Helping more New Zealanders fulfil their academic potential is something we all benefit from. But in many ways, this is currently reserved only for those who have money and who are surrounded by people with the resources to guide them through an arduous admissions process.

If New Zealand really prides itself on giving everyone a fair shot at achieving their potential, then this must change.

There are many important issues deserving of greater public attention, and this is not the first item on that list. But I hope that by telling my story, the next person's journey to the university of their dreams is a little bit easier.

• Korey Te Hira is a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Twitter: @koreytehira. LinkedIn: Korey Te Hira.