A bus trip and a long held desire to follow in her uncle’s footsteps, influenced Taranaki-born Khey-Jhyn Martin’s decision to study social work at the University of Waikato in Tauranga.
Five years on, with job offers from both her social work placements, the 22-year-old of Ngā Rauru descent, says it was the best decision she could have made – even if she had an unusual start to her study journey.
“My Uncle Eli started studying at Waikato the year I was born,” says Khey-Jhyn.
“He was the first in all my whānau to get a degree. He had his own wall in our homestead in Waverley where his graduation photo and science degree were hung up.
"I used to be cheeky and ask my Nan why I couldn’t have my photo on the wall and she always said to me, ‘You have to do something special to get up on the wall’. I remember wanting my photo on that wall so bad.”
By the time the New Plymouth Girls’ High School student’s college days were nearing an end, her goal to find that ‘something special’ was starting to look out of reach.
“I had no idea what to do once I’d finished high school,” says Khey-Jhyn with a wry smile.
At 17, she was too young to join the Police and the Navy was vetoed as, after five years of boarding school, she’d had enough of a structured routine.
When the opportunity presented itself to attend a University of Waikato Open Day at the Hamilton Campus, Khey-Jhyn joined her mates and boarded the bus.
“It was my uncle’s old uni so I was interested but, honestly, it was more to have a day off school,” she admits.
Fifteen minutes shy of boarding the bus back to Taranaki, Khey-Jhyn poked her head into the Bachelor of Social Work breakout room.
An exercise highlighting social justice captured her attention, so she joined in.
“The first thing I remember is the lecturer, Simon Lowe, saying if you’re not willing to move to Tauranga then this degree isn’t for you, since it’s only taught at the Tauranga campus.
"My uncle lived in Mount Maunganui so I carried on listening. By the time I jumped back on the bus I knew I’d be making an application as soon as I got home.”
Not gaining University Entrance could’ve put a halt to Khey-Jhyn’s plan to attend Waikato, but the teenager was determined.
She moved to Hamilton for a semester, completed a Certificate of University Preparation (CUP) Programme to prepare herself for tertiary study and started the Bachelor of Social Work the following semester in Tauranga.
“I guess, statistically, the odds were stacked against me,” she muses.
“A young Māori woman with no UE, moving to a new town, a teenage sweetheart back home… I could’ve easily given up and gone back to Taranaki.”
But she didn’t. Instead she worked hard, built great relationships with her social work classmates and gained the respect of her lecturers. Khey-Jhyn doesn’t sugar coat the intensity of the workload though.
“It was hard mahi. It’s a long degree and it needs to be. It naturally selects the people who will make good social workers. This programme prepares students really well for placement.”
Khey-Jhyn’s first placement, working with youth at the Merivale Community Centre, also helped her forge strong connections with the wider Tauranga community.
Her second placement came about after she took on a part-time job as a facilitator for Mates and Dates, a healthy relationship programme for secondary school students delivered by Tautoko Mai - Sexual Harm Support.
She pitched the idea of tying in her final placement alongside her paid role and the agency was happy to oblige.
She was only two weeks into her final placement, when Merivale Community Centre offered Khey-Jhyn a permanent job developing sports programmes for youth.
She didn’t expect Tautoko Mai to approach her with a counter offer.
“It was a humbling position to be in having two incredible offers before I’d even graduated,” she says.
Khey-Jhyn accepted the position of graduate social worker with Tautoko Mai, a specialised agency that supports survivors of sexual harm, and will start her new role in October.
She feels fortunate to work alongside highly experienced social workers, counsellors and psychologists whilst being supported and mentored by internal and external supervisors.
“I’m learning so much and am enjoying putting my theory into practice. Being surrounded by colleagues with such varied experience and knowledge is inspiring.”
Citing her two successful placements, selection to attend a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Youth Diversity Forum, and the firm friendships built along the way as highlights of her degree, Khey-Jhyn recommends the programme wholeheartedly.
She thinks long and hard before recommending the attributes a would-be social work student would need to be able to see the four-year degree to fruition.
“You have to have a passion for people, you need to be resilient and persevere because you’re dealing with confronting and often negative issues.
"Once you get through that, there is so much beauty at the end of it. And, know your ‘why’. My ‘why’ was my whānau - they were always there cheering from the side lines and supporting me unconditionally. That’s what motivated me to stick with it.”
Despite being eligible to graduate in December, Khey-Jhyn wants to hold off until next year so she can walk the stage with her classmates.
Then, finally, her photo and degree will take pride of place on Koro and Nan’s wall. There might be a bit of healthy family competition at play though.
“My Uncle Eli came back to study a couple of years ago, while I was here. Now he’s got a Graduate Diploma of Teaching so I’ll still have some catching up to do on the wall.”