7 December 2021

Māori cultural experience builds lasting bonds for international students

People & Culture

Experiencing Māori culture first-hand is a highlight for many international students which builds a life-long connection with the values of Aotearoa New Zealand. For some, it is a profound experience which helps them reframe connections with their own indigenous people.

Alongside courses in Māori culture, customs and language, some educational providers in New Zealand have offered an immersive noho marae (marae stay) experience. For students a long way from home, the warmth of the welcome and the sharing of knowledge, traditions, and food, gives them a lasting sense of belonging to Aotearoa.  

One of the first educators to recognise the importance of sharing Māori culture with international students is Taituwha King, Senior Lecturer in Māori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). For almost 20 years he has been running noho marae at the beginning of each semester to give international students a comprehensive cultural introduction to their study experience.

Such was the success of noho marae that King developed a course around it, called International Noho Marae – Indigenous Encounters of a Māori Kind, in 2010. It covers basic Te Reo Māori, Māori history, waiata (songs), and cultural customs, and is capped off with a weekend marae stay. It quickly became the second most popular class for international students at AUT, after another of King’s classes – Te Ara Pou Leadership. More than 1500 students have enrolled in the courses since 2002.    

Immersing in Māori culture is life changing

This is certainly true for Native American student Hailey Suina, from the Pueblo of Cochiti and Navajo Nation. She travelled to New Zealand on the Education New Zealand Go Overseas scholarship, already curious to explore the cultural connections between the Māori people and the indigenous people of North America.

She describes the time she spent immersed in Māori culture as “life-changing,” and returned home determined to use her experiences to become a leader in her community. 

Hailey says she was amazed by the similarities between the Cochiti Pueblo and Māori peoples, which include a collectivist rather than an individualistic culture, a sense of guardianship for nature, and strong ties with ancestors. 

“From the moment I arrived, I felt a deep connection with the Māori culture. It was like stepping from one home to another.”

So strong was the concept of whānau and whakawhanaungatanga (kinship connections) for a number of King’s students, that they developed Whānau Councils as a way of staying connected and building on the bonds of their shared New Zealand experience once they returned home. With the first one established in 2010, there are now three - two in the US and one in Europe.

Pre-Covid, students in Europe would meet up annually. King and other AUT staff committed to joining them, cementing the enduring relationship and ongoing commitment of AUT to its alumni.

“Events like noho marae and the Whānau Council meet-ups also provide an opportunity for prospective international students to learn about and consider AUT as a destination to study abroad and build relationships with key employers linked to our alumni,” says King.

Europe council co-founder Anne Heimbeig says being part of the Whānau Council is “a very emotional thing”.

“I’ve met great people from different countries. Together, we’ve overcome lots of stereotypes and wrong assumptions, and brought Māori culture out into the world.”

There was a sense of home, belonging, warmth, and love on the marae, says East Coast USA council co-founder Jessica Cohen.

“Being in the Whānau Council allows us to keep that spirit alive and remember the value of our whānau even when we are far away from our beloved Aotearoa.”

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