When Ilaisa Bale moved from Fiji to Hamilton a couple of years ago, he didn't expect to wind up in tertiary education. This November, Bale is set to graduate with a Bachelor of Applied Information Technology from Wintec.
Bale, who comes from a background in physical labour-based trades in the meatworks industry, was first drawn to the world of information technology after watching his mum, who also works in IT.
"Growing up, back home in Fiji, watching her work really inspired me to try and pursue IT as a career."
A chance meeting inspired him to pursue a degree at Wintec.
"My original intent was just to go in there and complete an industry certification," says Bale, who had been planning to enrol in the 16-week course, Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) at Wintec.
"I went in for an interview with Blaine Rakena who is the team manager at Wintec's Centre for Information Technology, and he said to me, 'If you've developed a vision and you have the drive to turn that vision into something, then come out and have a go at this.'"
Bale says he and Rakena particularly connected through "similar backgrounds" as Rakena had come from a career in the meatworks industry himself before switching to the world of IT. Hearing Rakena's story inspired Bale, who had initially looked at his background as an obstacle to tertiary study.
Bale says trying to understand the technologies and jargon used was "overwhelming" at first, but he benefited from the hands-on learning style.
"Our tutors, they don't just spoon-feed you, they teach you how to learn and to think for yourself.
"At the meatworks, everything is straightforward," says Bale, who was hesitant about undertaking a three-year degree.
"I showed up to do my job without having to think too much about what I was doing."
Three years later, Bale's degree has taken him to places he never imagined. Recently, Bale was brought on as a contractor for Waikato District Health Board (DHB), after overseas hackers caused a technology blackout. Bale describes the experience of walking into the building following the cyber attack as "surreal".
"Everything was covered up and all the computers were unplugged." Bale and his team worked hard to get the systems back online, while also working to calm down hospital staff members.
"Before working with the DHB, I never really understood how much IT impacts the community," says Bale, who felt a sense of reward being able to help "people who save lives".
Alongside his contractor role, Bale also works in a manual labour-based role with "a lot of physical effort involved" to support himself and his whānau.
His work schedule can be challenging to fit in around his studies - "having two jobs it's pretty difficult to do assignments on time" - and wouldn't be possible without the help of his tutors, classmates and support staff at Wintec.
"Even though I'm coming in as a mature student, and kids in my class are super, super smart, not once have I felt like an outsider," Bale says of his peers. "They're very inclusive, there's a lot of camaraderie in our class. If someone has completed a task, they'll try and help someone else complete theirs."
Bale also tries to "plan as much of my day as I can", which involves keeping track of his day in a planner and setting aside his phone to avoid distractions.
Though Bale has almost completed his Bachelor of Applied Information Technology degree, his academic journey is far from over - he's looking to complete a Masters degree and then he plans on tackling the world of IT head-on.
"I reckon studying is pretty awesome."