When Te Puke's Tangi Walker left school at the age of 15, she had no plans to return.
But fast forward to today and the mum-of-five and nan-of-two is one of a large number of students who are graduating with a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Waikato.
“It's not how you start, it's how you finish,” says Tangi.
Originally from Hastings and of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga descent, Tangi and her childhood sweetheart John both worked in the freezing works industry.
After the Whakatū closure in the late 80s that saw Tangi lose her job, John resigned from his, accepted an offer of farming work in Te Puke and the couple moved to the Bay of Plenty.
They married in 1988 and started a family soon after. While bringing up John James, Elizabeth, Samuel, Caleb and Michael, Tangi worked a variety of jobs - admin, share-milking, orchard work and at a supermarket.
She had her first educational challenge when she home-schooled her kids “out of necessity because the schools were too full at the time”.
For the first two years of her 15-year home-schooling stint, Tangi was part of a supportive network where other home-schooled children got together to socialise. When the network disbanded Tangi continued teaching her kids right up to tertiary level, when they each peeled off to do their studies.
The day Tangi took Samuel to enrol into Toi Ohomai's Tioriori (music) course was a significant one for her. In the student services office, she saw a flier for Kahikatea (Social Services certificate), and something clicked.
She thought “Why can't I can do that?” Turned out, she could. She completed the six-month course and applied to the University of Waikato's undergraduate degree.
With the unwavering support of her “rock” John and “amazing” kids, Tangi juggled home life with student life. She admits it wasn't a walk in the park.
“The first year of the degree, I felt like I was in a washing machine. I had to learn the academic speak, which was like another language. I would write down things I didn't understand and Google them later. Google was my saviour,” she says with a laugh.
Tangi has had a long affiliation with Windermere. It is home to one of the University's Tauranga campuses as well as the former Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, Toi Ohomai in a unique partnership that sees both institutions working collaboratively to provide more study options to students wanting to stay in the Bay.
At one time Tangi and four of her children were attending at the same time. She proudly recalls her second year when Michael completed a course in Art and Design through Toi Ohomai and Tangi was invited to be a guest speaker at his graduation.
“I was nervous but being given the opportunity to speak showed me how far I had come.”
Tangi is now encouraging mature students to follow her lead.
“It's scary but then you realise that everyone is scared. It's not all school leavers, there are lots of adult students too. Coming to university, and meeting so many different people, totally broadened my perspective on life and made me understand how other people tick.”
She is now looking for a job in the social work sector, ideally to work with at-risk youth and their families.
“It's not just the person. The family is the foundation. If the foundation is good, anything can be built on that. It really does take a village to raise a child and I want to be part of the village.”
Tangi and 117 University of Waikato students graduated today at ASB Baypark Arena and will paraded from Red Square to Devonport Road in the Tauranga CBD from 11am to 11.45am.