Tuari Potiki, University of Otago

Tuari Potiki, University of Otago

Tuari Potiki is using his lived experience to enhance the lives of Indigenous students in Otago and beyond, through the Indigenous student exchange program at the University of Otago. Despite the program being young in age, its impact is palpable, providing its students with authentic, tailored experiences and inspiring other institutions to follow suit.


Photo: University of Otago

Up to 12 universities are expected to participate in the future of the Tūrangawaewae, Pōkai Whenua program

For Māori students, the impact of a positive educational experience runs deep, and a degree can hold unique value. This not only benefits the individual, but “lifts up the whole family”, says Potiki, who is director of Māori development at Otago University.

Over half of the Māori students at Otago are the first in their family to go to university.

“For every Māori student who graduates, it’s not only setting up their future but their family’s too. It provides role modelling for the younger ones in their families,” says Potiki.

“If we get this right, it can be life changing and not just for individuals.”

Education is one of the pathways out of poverty and other negative social indicators caused by colonisation, Potiki tells The PIE.

In New Zealand, the Māori life expectancy is around seven years shorter than that of the non-Māori population.

Meanwhile, the university qualification completion and course completion rates are also lower for Māori and Pacific students.

Potiki is of Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe and Waitaha descent, and prior to joining Otago in 2012, worked extensively in Māori alcohol, drug and mental health services.

Over 30 years ago he underwent treatment for drug addiction, and continues to use his lived experience to help others in his current roles as chair of the New Zealand Drug Foundation and chair of the National Needle Exchange Services Trust.

When Potiki and his colleagues realised Indigenous students were being excluded from exchange opportunities due to their GPA not meeting the university’s threshold, they “challenged the university to do better” and so the Indigenous exchange program at Otago was founded.

“Our Indigenous students really wanted to travel, they wanted to go and explore the world but they wanted it to be an indigenous experience,” says Potiki.

“There’s so many universities who have a long history of really strong engagement with their local indigenous community going back decades. So that’s fantastic – that’s a starting place.

“We have a lot of universities asking us about the program and our first question back is ‘what is your relationship like to the local people where you are?’”

The Tūrangawaewae, Pōkai Whenua program is culturally-driven, semester-long exchange experience tailored to the individual student, and where possible, students are sent in pairs.

It is based on a-kanohi  – face to face connection – between the indigenous communities of the land that participating universities occupy.

“We have a lot of universities asking us about the program”

The exchanges for Indigenous students are always community to community, facilitated by the university, rather than the traditional university to university exchange.

According to Potiki, the parents of Indigenous students are especially interested in who is going to be looking after their child, rather than a faceless institution.

The program aims to creates a platform not only for progressing academic studies, but creating future careers in indigenous advancement.

Up to 12 universities are expected to participate in the future of the Tūrangawaewae, Pōkai Whenua program across Australia, Canada and the US, on a rotational basis of four per year, sending one student each to Otago in the second semester.

There is further interest from Taiwanese institutions, where Indigenous communities share many similar customs to Māori, even down to some of the same words – Potiki recently learned through the process.

“There is an expectation on the Indigenous community of whatever university it is to look after our students when they go, just as we do when they come to us.

I think it’s always about the community. The universities are great, but it’s always about the community, about the things [the student] experiences.”

The feedback from students has been “overwhelmingly positive”, says Potiki.

The program’s first outbound student left Otago’s Dunedin campus during the height of summer and found himself in -24°C conditions in Newfoundland, at Memorial University.

“He loved it. The local people really took to him.

“When [students] come to us, we take them to our gatherings. We want it to be authentic engagement.”

Incoming indigenous students are brought along to events, such as tribal meetings, and though many of the experiences are ‘amazing’, Potiki sees the importance in showing the ‘mundane’ too.

“The universities are great, but it’s always about the community”

“Some of it is administrative. We have to engage with all of these government departments and local councils that want a relationship with us. We really show the full experience. 

“It could even be attending a Māori funeral. They grab a tea-towel and they start in the kitchen – because that’s what you do. You work your way up.”

Potiki says it’s not about sitting back and watching and writing, “you get in there – authenticity is really important.”

“We always want them to leave with their stomachs full and their mind and spirit, so that they leave positively and that responsibility is taken really seriously.”

Although Potiki wouldn’t admit it, he and his team at Otago have become somewhat of a trailblazer in this area, with institutions such as Memorial University and Western University following in its footsteps and incorporating similar programs in their Indigenous strategies, with the guidance of Otago.

“That makes us really happy. It’s not saying ‘we’re clever’, it’s just saying that we had something that was valuable and it may be that next time around we learn from theirs.”

“There’s a lot of cross-pollination, we’re learning from each other. It’s incredibly helpful.”

The success of the program for students has sparked interest in Indigenous staff members too, particularly for support and professional staff, who perhaps don’t have the same collaborative opportunities than that of academic staff, says Potiki.

“We are looking at expanding the relationships to include staff exchange. There’s a lot of interest.”

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