Because of who they are

Alumni achievers — By on May 29, 2017 12:14 pm

This year, for the first time, the majority of the University’s Distinguished Alumni are from Polynesian backgrounds. They are all high achievers who are having a significant impact on their communities. Tess Redgrave met the three female winners.

Bring together broadcaster Carol Hirschfeld (54), Head of Content at Radio New Zealand, with artist Lisa Reihana (52), who is representing New Zealand at the 2017 Venice Biennale, and Erna Takazawa (28), Samoa’s first optometrist, and there is one thing they all quickly identify in common: Each knows what it is like to be a “half-caste” or as Lisa jokes “a hybrid or bitzer”.

“I was always aware of the word when I was young and it was derogatory,” says Carol, whose Māori mother left her home at Rangitukia near East Cape in the early 1950s to make her luck in the city.

“I was aware of a sense of unfairness as a child,” says Lisa. “My father was the first of his whānau to come down to the city from up north. He was caned at school for speaking Māori so I was never encouraged to learn Te Reo when I was young.”

For Erna, whose father came to Samoa from Japan, the word she knows is not “half caste” but “afakasi”. “I didn’t feel like a typical Samoan. I stood out as different – an Asian-looking slit-eyed afakasi.”

But the minute you learn about these three women you realise that no matter what life has thrown at them, they have stood firm and met the challenge. Ironically growing up a “hybrid” has been part of the crucible on which their careers have flourished.

“Being an afakasi pushed me to be stronger,” says Erna, who in 2015 was one of nine young people from the Pacific to win a Queen’s Medal. “I found ways to blend in. That’s why I put my energy into sports and academics.”

Lisa, from a young age, decided she wasn’t going to be pigeon-holed. “My mother is English/Welsh, my father is Māori. I am an in-between person. That is my gift and I like to investigate being this dual hybrid in my art.”

For Carol, who readily admits she had to take beta blockers for her nerves when she first fronted our television screens,her mother’s courageous journey to the city is something she holds close. “I think it’s given me the courage to be in a difficult place.”

Significantly too, each is a member of the first generation in their families to go to university. They take nothing for granted and I sense they are having an impact on their communities, not just because of their work, but also because of who they are and where they have come from.

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