In the midst of a global pandemic, unprecedented health sector reform and cultural change, Māori health students are still graduating.
This time last year, AUT Winter Graduation was cancelled due to COVID-19. New Zealand was still in a state of flux from the first lockdown. Nobody walked the stage. There were no parchments or after-parties.
It's something that was still on the minds of staff at the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences (HES) as they prepared for the Māori Celebration of Graduation, held on Thursday 29 July at AUT North Campus.
Robert Hogg, Associate Dean Māori Advancement (Undergraduate), says the Māori Celebration of Graduation is an opportunity for staff to acknowledge Māori graduands for their hard work and achievement, and to thank whānau for entrusting AUT with the care of their whanaunga (kin).
Staff presented each graduand with a certificate and taonga (pounamu). Whānau were then invited to join their whanaunga to further acknowledge their achievements, and waiata or haka typically ensued.
An important aspect of the Māori Celebration of Graduation is the returning of the graduand to their whānau.
"The significance of this crossing over, from the hunga to whānau, represents the coming to an end of the graduand's current journey with AUT. More importantly, it symbolises the return of the graduand to their whānau, hapū, hapori, and iwi. And the realisation that they are now an agent for positive change," says Hogg.
Almost 40 percent of students who identify as Māori are enrolled in the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences, making it the single largest Māori student cohort at AUT. The faculty currently has 775 full-time Māori students (and an additional 300 studying part-time). Half of these students are based in the School of Clinical Sciences.
Over the past decade, there has been year-on-year growth in the number of Māori students in the faculty. Māori currently represent 9.7 percent of postgraduate students in HES (compared to 6.8 percent across AUT), and 11.7 percent of undergraduate students in HES (compared to 10.6 percent across AUT).
The HES programme with the highest Māori student enrolment is the Bachelor of Sport and Recreation, followed by the respective Bachelor of Health Science programmes in Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy.
The Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences delivers Māori pathways in the curriculum and conducts research that benefits Māori whānau and communities.
Within the faculty, the Māori Health Department plays a pivotal role by developing and teaching Te Ara Hauora Māori (Māori Health pathway) papers, which allow students to see health and wellbeing through a Māori lens.
For undergraduates, the Hauora Māori paper provides an introduction to Māori concepts of health and environment and the implications for professional practice. It fosters inquiry and reflection on Māori health and development. It also emphasises the connectedness between a student's chosen career and Māori health.
Māori Health staff work closely with the AUT Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research, which promotes positive health experiences and improved health outcomes for Māori.
Professor Denise Wilson, Director of Taupua Waiora and Associate Dean Māori Advancement (Postgraduate), has been a tireless campaigner for Māori health.
She says, all people living in Aotearoa should be able to enjoy healthy lives and live to a similar age, but that is not the case for Māori.
"The health and wellbeing of the community is best served when the workforce reflects the community. We cannot underestimate the value of having someone who looks like you in a health setting," says Wilson.
"We need a purposeful strategy aimed at education and practice to increase the Māori health workforce. And an interdisciplinary team of Māori health experts, working in partnership with government, to monitor recruitment, retention, and cultural safety in our classrooms and workplaces."
The healthcare landscape is shifting. Earlier this year, the government announced the most significant public health reform ever seen in New Zealand. All 20 district health boards will be consolidated under a single entity, Health New Zealand, and a Māori Health Authority is being formed.
The stakes are high. And all eyes are on Māori health.
Hogg says, Māori advancement cannot be the sole responsibility of a handful of academics and Māori Student Support services. Ehara tāku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takatini (my strength is not as an individual, but as a collective).
In an unprecedented move, the faculty recently appointed four current academics to the role of Associate Head of School Māori Advancement – Associate Professor Jacquie Kidd (School of Clinical Sciences), Dr Alayne Hall (School of Public Health and Interdisciplinary Studies), and Dr John Perrott (School of Science).
Hogg was appointed Associate Head of School Māori Advancement (School of Sport and Recreation) in addition to his existing role as Associate Dean Māori Advancement (Undergraduate).
"The aim of these roles is to contribute to our shared commitment – as a university, faculty and schools – to advance a genuine partnership under te Tiriti o Waitangi through mahi tahi (working as one)," he says.
The establishment of these roles came about in response to a survey of Māori staff within the faculty. There was also a need to respond to the current public health reform by developing a high-level strategic leadership group.
"These highly regarded Māori academics will contribute to the leadership of the faculty and their respective schools, to promote Māori staff and students in their success at AUT," says Hogg.
In addition to Māori Student Support services, all Māori applicants to the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences are individually case-managed. Students also have the opportunity to be assessed in te reo.
The student group Te Rau Kawakawa (Hauora Māori Association) promotes whakawhanaungatanga (the process of establishing relationships and relating well to others) among AUT's Māori health students and alumni, health professionals, and hauora Māori advocates with the aim of improving health services for Māori. It also serves as a collective voice for Māori health students.
For Māori postgraduate students, supportive supervisory processes and relationships with senior academics who reflect their world-view can have a powerful impact.
In 2020, Wilson was recognised as one of Aotearoa's 100 Māori Leaders of today, who influence and contribute to Māori health and wellbeing. She was nominated by a former postgraduate student, Dr Dianne Wepa.
Wepa says, I admire Denise for the tenacity to remain focused on the kaupapa of supporting Māori doctoral students, such as myself. Denise is highly sought after as a doctoral supervisor as she achieves results for her students and the betterment of whānau by increasing the knowledge base in mātauranga Māori.
"All of these roles and our collective efforts are critical in growing the puna (spring) of great Māori graduates," says Hogg.