Journey to the ivory tower: how did I get here?

Image: “University of Victoria” by herraiz 

Before returning to higher education, I faced some minor prospects as an occasional musician and music teacher struggling to make ends meet. I supplemented this sporadic income by working at a bar. For years I didn’t know what it was like to ‘have a weekend’. Each year my teaching hours lessened, and I soon realised that the life of a musician might be not be sustainable.

Three years after my Bachelors of Music, I found myself back at university but this time in Cultural Studies (not the Indigenous kind), writing essays on pornography, and delivering presentations on HIV stigma. When I lost one of my part-time gigs, I made the decision to return to university full-time and get another qualification. To think about things – I had never been so time rich.

At this point in life, I knew that I’m Māori but not much else. A phone call to koro (grandad) in Australia told me about the iwi. I ought to enrol with them I think. I enrolled in the Contemporary Indigenous Issues course at the University of Canterbury in 2015. Imposter syndrome was not yet in my vocabulary, but somehow I circumvented the usual B.A. requirements to get into this 300 level Māori studies paper. We learnt about the Ngāi Tahu settlement and the Sealord deal. Many knowledge gaps in my reality began to appear.

Bored with my hometown, where I’ve spent 23 years I was at a crossroad. I decided to transfer to Victoria University of Wellington, and enrol in a Graduate Diploma in Māori Studies. What am I doing with my life I wonder? But so many things began to untangle within me as this journey began. The Treaty. Colonisation. Te Reo Māori. Tikanga. Pepper plotting and Māori trade schemes of the 1960’s – the reason my koro moved to the city and became a brick layer. Diaspora. The reason I am disconnected from my tūrangawaewae. 

Something else happened. I received validation for thoughts via essays, discussions in tutorials, or after class with lecturers.  Conversations that my friends would have likely dismissed as conspiracies or unfortunate events. I solidified my story about who I am.

Before I know it I complete my graduate diploma and look forward to employment in a dull office somewhere downtown, and hopefully a living wage. But no one hires me, and I spend a summer working at a bar again. So I go back and do Honours. Another year of exploring my whakapapa and the complex issues Māori face. I was able to incorporate a trip back to my tūrangawaewae (standing place)as part of my dissertation where I learned about my whānau. And before I know it, I enlist myself in a Master’s degree. And finish it.

It is at this point that I realise I know too much. I am at a crossroads. A crossroads with the academy, the academics that have taken care of me for the last three years, and society. Each day I critique the leadership of government and even Māori, seeking the best for our future, the best for my future.

My whānau don’t understand what it is that I do or the value of university. Sometimes, I don’t either. I am the first moko (grandchild). The first moko with a Master’s too. I am curious about how things work in society – and more importantly, how they don’t work.

I am indebted to my peers and tuakana (experienced peers) that have supported me on campus and off. They validate my existence in this strange place called university. Whom without, I would not have gotten this far… to the point where I might actually enrol in a PhD. Pure fantasy to myself three years ago.

At Christmas I bump into some friends from high school. Some of which have also found comfort in the academy: “where are you going to do your PhD? I’m thinking about this one in New York… my dad went to (insert elite university here)”, he proclaims. A little shook, I remember my working class logic – how can anyone afford to do that? Privilege. Something we talk about a lot about at uni I now see in my peers.

As Māori in Aotearoa, we are valuable contributors of knowledge. Māori PhD’s equate to money for your institution. For some of us, we are lucky to have the opportunity to receive scholarships and stipends. Roughly $451.92 a week at my uni. But with the rising costs of living, where $200 per week for a damp uninsulated room is now cheap (but good luck getting a flat); an aging whānau, where some still earn just above minimum wage… a three year commitment to less-than full-time minimum wage is a massive undertaking. Don’t get me wrong. I am used to working multiple jobs while studying and potential to work on top of this. I have been doing it for some time now.

You see it’s not just the numbers though. It’s much worse. I have a taste for it now. Findings, arguing a point, critiquing the establishment, shedding light on the ‘nuances’. The feeling of finding out something new. Or that buzz when you make an undergraduate go “ahhh”. Three years locked up in my own thoughts… perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise?

Bio – Symon Palmer

Symon is a descendant of Ngāi Te Rangi iwi in Tauranga Moana but grew up in Christchurch and now lives in Wellington. He recently finished his Master’s thesis on Māori business perceptions of biotechnologies in pest wasp management at Te Kawa a Māui, Victoria University of Wellington. Currently he works as a research assistant, developing a journal article from his thesis.

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