Yesterday I was able to take pictures of the beautiful Cheryl Edwards while she was preparing herself for her graduation ceremony. I've known Cheryl since our Auckland Girls Grammar days but it wasn't until we were preparing for her graduation shoot did I learn of her inspiring story. After talking with her did I really learn how much that day meant to her.
How did you know you wanted to get a degree from uni?
My family made the choice for me - but in the best and most loving way possible.
My Bai and Laki (Filipino Grandparents) lived with our family from the time I was 7 and back in the Philippines they both sacrificed a lot for their children to be educated. They lived through the Japanese occupation and my Bai would often talk of how much regret she felt, being unable to finish grade seven. My Laki was a craftsman shoemaker and Bai was a seamstress, they worked hard to provide for the family but it was still difficult to be able to cover tuition for five children. Back then you needed to pay for high school education, so they helped their three eldest daughters open their own made to order dress shop to pay for their education. They worked during the day to pay for studies at night and my mother would help by cooking meals for the family. Their eldest son Manuel chose to study to be a mechanic and Mila, Mely, Melita and my mother Melinda all graduated from university using funds from the store.
My Grandpa Charles immigrated from Tonga to New Zealand as an aircraft engineer for Air New Zealand and was eventually able to bring over his wife Ana and their seven children. My Nana Ana is exceptionally bright and loves to learn, she was in the top of her classes throughout school and dreamed of educating her children overseas for better opportunities. My father Charles spent majority of his career as a telecommunications technician and he set an example for me when he decided to study at Manukau Institute of Technology, graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Social Work in 2015.
With these examples in my life it was never a question of if I wanted a degree but when would I be in the right mindset to earn a degree. My parents and sister Jennifer have supported every single attempt of mine over an eight-year period to make this dream come true.
How did you know what you wanted to study?
I had no idea what I wanted to study, I just tried to play to my strengths. To be completely honest, I chose Sociology 100 because a student advisor told me the end of semester exam was multi-choice! However, once I started learning about the sociology framework, I fell in love with being able to put a name the structural influences behind my experiences as a Polynesian woman from South Auckland. I also chose gender studies because it helped me to further explain my experiences as a young woman growing up in the Mormon church.
Who has influenced or been instrumental in your pursuit for higher education?
My sister Jennifer and best friend Jasmine have been two of my strongest influences. Although my sister is yet to complete her degree, she has a very successful career in Australia and her determination to rise the ranks has been amazing to watch. She was adamant that I complete my studies and was only a phone call away when things were tough.
Jasmine and I have been best friends since we were twelve and she has had her own unique journey with education. She showed me that it didn’t matter when or how you began your tertiary journey, it only matters that you commit to it completely once you find your rhythm. As an artist and education outreach coordinator, she constantly seeks out cultural and political knowledge to enrich her work.
I also have a large group of girlfriends in my life that I have met through studying and church who have kept me grounded along the way. Every single one of them has excelled in their chosen fields of study and careers and I am so lucky that I have had many women to draw upon for strength and guidance.
Why did you pick University of Auckland?
We attended the UoA open day as a family when my sister was year thirteen and it was wonderful. We sat in on a couple of faculty talks and visited stalls together. I was thirteen at the time and a long way off from studying at university but I just loved the idea of being able to go there and learn anything I wanted. I collected brochures from that day and held onto them for years until I attended their Tertiary Foundation Certificate in 2010. That day is one of my favourite memories with my family and when my mental health was particularly bad in high school and my grades were down, I would look at the brochures to remind myself of where I wanted to eventually be.
Why did you decide to go back to school after dropping out of high school?
I started at Girls Grammar in 2004 and loved every single minute of it. I made life-long friendships with both students and teachers there. The quality of education was incredible, I was fortunate enough to be in a group which was afforded extra opportunities with special interest classes and modules. However, I wasn’t performing well at all. I had suffered from depression, anxiety and PTSD due to sexual abuse during that time and I was unable to continue.
Kathleen Becker was my art and photography teacher at AGGS from year nine onwards and kept in touch with me after I left. She made sure I always felt loved enough to know I shouldn’t give up, even if I wasn’t passing anything. She continued her support even after I enrolled at Manurewa High School after ten months off from school. At Manurewa I took a limited number of classes which collectively couldn’t produce enough credits to pass level 3 but I felt it was important to be in a learning environment to keep a sense of routine. Kathleen exchanged emails with me while I was there and continued to support me in my times of need, right up until my last year of university in 2017.
Dr. Nina Nola was my English lecturer during my time in the University of Auckland Tertiary Foundation Certificate in 2010. Even though I failed that certificate and another foundation program the following year, without her belief in me I don’t know if I would have made it to this point. She wrote a letter of recommendation for me to resit the certificate in 2013 and it was upon my third attempt that I finally passed. Amazingly, when I walked on stage to shake the chancellor’s hand at my graduation ceremony, Nina was the first person I saw and I haven’t seen her for the last four years. It was an incredible moment where my life felt like it had come full circle. It’s educators like Kathleen and Nina who helped me go from a high school drop out to university graduate.
What were the challenges/obstacles from completing your degree?
I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD until 2013 and once I was made aware of it I understood why it was extremely difficult to retain information while studying. At the beginning of my degree I would go back to reread assignments and feel completely disconnected. I had to fight extremely hard to comprehend the material, illustrate it in my own words and then recall it. Even though my grades steadily improved, it wasn’t until my fourth and final year that I could easily follow the lectures and readings and feel confident in my work.
This journey of recovery during my studies was possible because I believed that one day I would get better. I invested numerous amounts of hours in counselling sessions, doing self-help courses and reading law of attraction books. Most importantly though, I found a wonderful human who was willing to love me at my worst, forgive me for my weaknesses and walk alongside me as I rebuilt my life. Luisi and I are now engaged and although we may not have the prefect relationship, he had the foresight and ability to not just see my potential but be willing to wait for me to reach. Our love for each other has been my greatest blessing during my time at university.
What are 5 lessons you’ve learnt that you will use in your life from completing your degree?
1. Believe in yourself, trust the process and don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a school leaver, high school drop-out or mature student. Education is a life-long process and love affair. Your journey will begin and end when the time is right, all you need to do is prioritise your goals and steadily work away on them.
2. Treat your educators with respect. Lecturers have intense workloads and lives outside of the classroom. Try to be as honest as possible and build relationships of trust. If you establish this relationship early on they will go out of their way to help you get through the workload when problems arise. (Shout out to Dr. Carisa Showden and Associate Professor Vivienne Elizabeth, who were my two guardian angels during my degree.)
3. Surround yourself with good people. Establish connections with your fellow students, especially those who share your major because you will be spending the next few years with them. They will become your life line when you need to swap notes or do last minute study groups before tests and exams. Also, only keep company with people who respect that you are in a self-directed study environment and understand that you may not always have time to socialise.
4. Make use of the free student services you are eligible for. Pacific and Maori students have the Tuakana program which provides extra tutorials, workshops and information nights. AUSA, Career Development and Employability Services (CDES) and Student Learning Services all offer quality resources and in my opinion, are severely underutilised. You’re paying thousands of dollars to be there, get the most out of your tuition and what you’re entitled to.
5. If you’re Polynesian or Maori, take a paper from Pacific Studies or Maori Studies, it will be life changing. We are indoctrinated with western ideals of what defines ‘legitimate cultural knowledge’ every single day. Our cultural perspective is valuable and important, it is what makes us unique. Every other subject and paper you will be studying at university is taught from a white world view, so give yourself the opportunity to spend some time unravelling those views in an environment which affirms the value of our people. You won’t regret it.
Where to now?
The critical thinking skills I have developed within Sociology and Gender Studies has helped me to secure one of eighteen placements nation-wide with the Commercial Communications Council Graduate Programme (formerly CAANZ). I am now three months into my internship with a reputable creative advertising agency in Auckland and look forward to learning more about how I can make a difference to the future of advertising in New Zealand as an ambitious Polynesian woman. I hope to achieve better representation in the industry by honouring this opportunity and I know the best is yet to come.