By the time she stepped onto the grounds of AUT, Jess Tyson had already lived an extraordinary life – a life peppered with joyous highs (she was named Miss Teen World at the age of 15) and unimaginable lows (she was sexually abused at the age of 7).
Now a highly regarded journalist for Māori Television and founder of Brave, a charity which raises awareness about sexual violence affecting young people, Jess is a beacon of hope for Māori youth struggling to conquer adversity.
“I love sharing stories about incredible Māori people who have overcome significant challenges and gone on to do amazing things. These stories really resonate with me, and I believe they’re the best way to inspire those who are facing hardship,” explains Jess.
Her passion for uplifting others was fuelled during her time at AUT, where she completed a Bachelor of Communication Studies majoring in Journalism.
“In class one day we were discussing justice in society, and how hard it is for victims of sexual abuse to prove it in a court room. When I was 9, I testified against my abuser in court during a three-day trial, but charges were dismissed through lack of evidence – so I’d been through that exact experience myself. Although I’d already found peace with what had happened to me, I still wanted to do something to help others.”
Her chance came a few years later when she entered (and won) Miss World New Zealand. “Being crowned Miss World New Zealand helped me see the value in giving back and gave me the confidence, courage and bravery to share my story.
‘Beauty with a Purpose’ is one of the main categories in the pageant, and sees contestants tasked with working on a charity project. That’s when I decided to open up about my own experiences and launch Brave.”
In the four years since its inception, the organisation has gone from strength to strength. Now run by a team of five – and funded in part with the $20,000 Jess won during her stint on 2021 Celebrity Treasure Island – countless young Kiwis have been empowered and supported.
“We used to go around and talk to all the schools but since the pandemic, social media has become the best way to connect. It’s pretty hard to juggle my full-time job and my work with Brave, but we get such great feedback, so we know it’s having an impact. This drives us to keep going and keep growing.”
A self-proclaimed overachiever, Jess is keeping one eye firmly fixed on Brave while also taking her career at Māori Television to the next level, in her role as a news reporter with Te Ao with Moana.
“This is my first year doing current affairs and I want to become really, really good at it!” At the same time, she’s completing her final year of part-time studies in te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
“When I was majoring in journalism, I found I was really drawn towards Māori news. My dad is Māori and my mum is Pākehā, but looking back I didn’t grow up as immersed in the culture as I should have been. At AUT I got involved in the Māori Students’ Association and became one of the leaders. That opened my eyes to the beauty of my culture, and I picked up a couple of te reo courses which I did alongside my degree.
“Learning about my culture was the biggest highlight of studying at AUT. All the staff in Te Ara Poutama, the Faculty of Māori & Indigenous Development, were amazing. I really struggled moving from my home of Whanganui to study in Auckland because everything was so much more expensive. They supported me, helped me financially, and provided me with a mentor. Having that community around me was the best and most influential part of my university experience.”
After graduating, Jess enrolled in Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa for their one-year full-time full immersion te reo programme - and she hasn’t stopped learning since.
“Once I decided I wanted to focus on Māori news, I knew that I had to speak the language. As Māori, there’s a feeling of shame not knowing our language, and I’m such a perfectionist that in the past I’ve been too scared to try in case I made mistakes. If I hadn’t studied at AUT I wouldn’t have become nearly as comfortable learning and trying new things.”
At just 28 years of age, Jess has already accomplished more than many. And she says there’s plenty more to come.
“What makes me proud is the fact that I haven’t stopped at one thing. I’ve continued – and will continue – to achieve great things hopefully for the rest of my life.”
This story was originally published in Insight, the magazine for AUT alumni and friends. Read the most recent issue of Insight for more stories of groundbreaking research and great AUT graduates who are making a difference around the world.