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Karen Albert helps whānau to navigate their journey into tertiary education by using core Māori values

March 22, 2021

Entering into tertiary education can be a daunting experience, especially if you are paddling the waka on your own. But Tairāwhiti woman Karen Albert is helping local whānau to navigate their journey by using core Māori values. She shares these values with Shaan Te Kani.

Who are you first? It’s a good question to ask ourselves. Many may answer by saying, “I am a person”. So with that in mind, how do we see others? And more importantly, how do we treat others?

Karen Albert is a Māori woman, a mother, a person who takes pride in her whakapapa and culture.

Treating others as whānau first is integral, she says, especially when working in a role that aims to support people in their educational pursuits.

Karen is also an accessibility co-ordinator at the Eastern Institute of Technology’s Tairāwhiti campus.

Her role is to support local students, by helping them to navigate their way through tertiary education at EIT Tairāwhiti.

Tertiary life can be an overwhelming experience for some people, especially for those who are studying for the first time, or aren’t sure of how to go about it.

Every student is unique, says Karen, which means they all have different needs, challenges and strengths.

Some students may need extra learning support, some may have diagnoses such as takiwātanga (autism) or hearing impairment. Some may be experiencing hardship or challenging times at home, and some students may be first-time parents with young babies.

Whatever their circumstance or background, Karen’s goal is to help all whānau succeed by understanding them first.

From there she works towards eliminating any barriers, and then tries to implement support systems for whānau.

“My heart will always be for the people,” Karen says.

“And in this role, it’s really about us saying — ‘how can we best support this student?’

“How valuable can we make their time here at EIT? Because whānau need to have value in being here.”

As each person is unique, Karen believes that the approach must be individualised and specific.

“I have to take the time to get to know them, their whānau, so I know how to best support them.

“When they start to tell me their experiences I’m always extremely grateful, and I feel privileged that they share their stories with me.

“That’s enough for me to advocate for them. That’s how I approach our whānau.

“I’m happy to speak to people before they make a decision about studying, and I’m honest about asking if this is the right place for them because I refuse to have people being set up to fail.

“I work to their attributes rather than their deficiencies. And their abilities should never be compared to anyone else.

“It’s about asking, what are the little things in between that we can do to help them reach their goal? What’s the most logical way?

“I like to break those things down into micro steps, and work backwards with them.”

Karen also looks at ways in which institutions and organisations can contribute to attitudes around moving barriers for our whānau.

“What is it that we can do in our role to make learning valuable and more accessible for these students?

“I may express to their tutor that they may need time and space to complete their mahi in a way that they can. I believe in our whānau. They are capable and they will get it done.

“I may sit alongside them during a Work and Income appointment — if that is the support that they need — and I’ll advocate for them.

“But it’s also about reminding institutions and organisations of what our obligations are under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and holistic health models like Te Whare Tapawha — which are supposed to be applied to our whanau.

“It is our fundamental responsibility to uphold our tikanga — which benefits everyone.”

Success is ultimately in the growth and development of a person, not just in receiving a certificate, says Karen.

“I’m so proud of our tauira (students). It’s often the things that are deemed as being small that bring the most joy.

“It’s special when I see some of them making friends, or they accomplish a task that they have found really challenging.

“Receiving a tohu and getting a job is great, and is an integral part of our goals. But there is also so much more to success.

“It’s ultimately about seeing our whānau find value in something that they enjoy, and also for them to know that they are valued,” she says.