EIT nursing student Kathy Kupenga was stunned to open an email telling her she was to receive the prestigious Te Apa Māreikura scholarship, one of only two made nationwide by the Ministry of Health.
"I never expected it, but it is humbling to be a recipient. I feel so honoured," Kathy says.
The student awards, each worth $10,000, are chosen from 11 health categories. Established under the ministry’s Hauora Māori programme, they recognise the recipients’ involvement in community health, proven leadership and effective community networks as well as academic excellence.
A second-year Bachelor of Nursing student, Kathy will travel to Wellington in November for the awards presentation. Daughter Te Rina, Kathy’s parents, who live in Ruatoria, and family from all over the country are expected to join the celebration.
Ngāti Porou from the east coast, Kathy moved to Hastings from Wellington because Te Rina is also Ngāti Kahungunu on her father’s side.
"I want my daughter to have a strong iwi identity and be well connected to her people. I believe the only way to achieve that is to live amongst them, hence we are here," she says.
With a strong clinical background, Kathy served as a medic in the New Zealand Army, a paramedic in the Wellington Free and St John Ambulance services, a Māori advisor in smoking cessation for The Quit Group in Wellington and a health promoter and asthma educator for Turanga Health in Gisborne.
In 2011, she took up a regional role with the Ministry of Justice, developing a specialist service aimed at minimising the impact of the judicial process on victims of sexual violence.
Her wide-ranging experiences have put her at the coal face with Māori.
"For as long as I can remember," she says, "I have always been at the forefront, helping people and trying to make a difference."
Representing EIT as a student union delegate on the New Zealand Nurses Organisation and the national chair for Te Rūnanga Tauira - the ‘Treaty’ arm to the National Student Unit - Kathy says she is really enjoying the political side of nursing and advocating for students. She also serves as secretary for Te Roopu Whaioranga, a Māori Bachelor of Nursing student-led support group at EIT.
In her late 40s - she is shy about her age, she laughs - she is enjoying studying at EIT. In May, she won an exemplar competition at a national hui for Māori nursing students, drawing on her practicum experience working in mental health.
Coming from a family of academic achievers, Kathy says learning as a mature student is so much easier, "but at the end of the day, I just want to get out there and do the mahi (work)."
Ideally, she would like to work in acute care - "I’m an adrenalin junkie, plus I think better under pressure."
Her diverse background has made her intimately aware of all the types of people in the world, she says, and one of the biggest things she has learnt to accept is that sometimes you can’t save everyone or ‘fix’ every social problem or circumstance.