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Rugby league star with a passion for knowledge

Rugby league star with a passion for knowledge

Caption: Apirina Pewhairangi (second from left) with his father Tu Pēwhairangi, mother Irene Pēwhairangi and sister Te Ataakura Pēwhairangi; and Dr Petina Winiata with her brothers Huia and Kimo Winiata.

Studying the Treaty of Waitangi and writing assignments on Māori language, health and politics don't sound like the way most professional rugby league players spend their free time.

For Apirana Pēwhairangi, who graduated today with a Bachelor of Arts in Māori Studies, studying by distance at Massey University whilst pursuing a professional sporting career as NRL league player for the Parramatta Eels in Sydney proved a workable, sustaining combination.

The 22-year-old, who recently returned from a five-year stint in Australia playing professional rugby league to join the Vodafone Warriors in Auckland, says he missed his New Zealand family, friends and way of life while living in Australia. But studying his culture by distance proved to be a great way of connecting with his roots.

“It was quite tough at times being away. I’d grown up in a very Māori world, at school and home. It was a big change of lifestyle and I missed being around the language and customs, the big gatherings with powhiri,” he says. “The study definitely helped me keep in touch with my culture.”

“It’s good to have a balance in life with study, sport and family. With the training all day, it was good to use my brain.”

Mr Pēwhairangi (Ngāti Porou) was raised in Palmerston North and attended Te Kura Kaupapa Māori O Mana Tamariki Māori immersion school.

In 2009, when he was 17, he signed with the Newcastle Knights club for three years, before signing a contract to play for the Eels in 2013 for a two-year contract.

When he had the chance to return, he has coached and mentored young high school rugby league players in Palmerston North. He has also represented New Zealand in rugby league for the Junior Kiwis in 2012, the New Zealand Māoris in 2013. He played for Ireland against Fiji and England in the rugby league World Cup in November last year, qualifying through his mother’s Irish heritage.

When he started his degree, he received a Highbury scholarship, which he says not only helped financially but kept him in regular contact with the Highbury scholarship co-ordinators who monitored his progress.

He says his parents Tu and Irene Pēwhairangi, both teachers, instilled in him the value of education. He’s considering the possibility of teacher training in the future, but for now is concentrating on his current sporting gig with the Warriors.

His sister Te Ataakura, 20, and brother Te Aorere, 19, are both studying by distance at Massey, (for a BA (Māori Studies) and a Bachelor of Communication respectively) while they work for Māori Television in Auckland. Older sister Keri has a teaching degree, and is principal of a kura kaupapa Māori school in Auckland.

Also graduating at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences ceremony was PhD candidate Petina Winiata (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toarangatira, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Whakaue), the first Māori women in the world to write a doctoral thesis entirely in Te Reo Māori. Her supervisor, Professor Tai Black, has supervised 23 doctorates by Māori candidates at Massey since 2000, including 11 written in Te Reo.

Dr Winiata’s thesis focuses on activities and strategies to ensure the survival and prosperity of Ngāti Pareraukawa (a hapu in the Horowhenua of which she is a descendant).

Guest speaker at the ceremony Glenis Philip-Barbara, Associate Deputy Chief Executive for Child, Youth and Family, told graduates that the degree they had earned through hard work is “a ticket out of two minute noodle hell, out of hardship and into a level of employment that means from here on in you will be OK.”

She encouraged them to use their energy for innovation in community service to help those in need because it would “boost and transform your career by building networks and relationships and experience that money can’t buy.”


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