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Gift helps young scholar with disabilities


Having three auto-immune diseases as well as depression took such a toll on University of Auckland student Sarai McKay she had to take a year off to get well.

Now her life is back on track and she has won two scholarships, including the Muriel Roberts Scholarship for a disabled student to travel overseas, to complete her Bachelor of Arts with a focus on Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Sarai (Tainui Waikato, Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu ki Rongomaiwāhine) is completing her final year of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Māori Studies and English, and working part-time for the University’s Māori Student Association.

She manages a range of illnesses including endometriosis, coeliac and irritable bowel syndrome as well as depression and anxiety.

“When I was at high school, I got to a point where I was extremely malnourished, anaemic and underweight,” Sarai, now 21, recalls. “I’d faint a lot and had to take a lot of time.”

The former deputy head girl of Lynfield College and kapa haka leader says she has become better at recognising when to stop and take better care of herself.

However the decision to take a year off to get well mid-way through her degree still went against her high-achieving, stoic work ethic.

“It’s not my style and it’s not really how I was raised. It was a huge sacrifice. But I needed to take time to educate myself on how to manage my illness, restructure my priorities and reassess my values.”

Next semester she will travel to Wollongong thanks in part to the foresight of another disabled student, Muriel Roberts. Muriel passed away four years ago at the age of 98, leaving a bequest to the University of Auckland to establish a scholarship to go towards an overseas trip for any deserving disabled student member, preferably one who has not been overseas before.

Muriel was profoundly deaf in one ear. She was kicked out of school when young and it was more than 40 years later, when she was in her late fifties, that she returned to study eventually earning three degrees – a BA, an MA and an LLB. She is believed to have been the oldest person admitted to the Bar at 76.

Her donation to the University was part of the For all our Futures fundraising campaign, launched in September 2016 with the aim of raising $300 million to put towards programmes, research, and scholarships at the University of Auckland.

Sarai also received an Endeavour Leadership Programme grant from the University of Wollongong, which will give her access to cultural experiences as part of her time in Australia.

“If I hadn’t received the scholarships, there is no way I could have accepted my place in the Indigenous Studies programme in Wollongong,” Sarai says.

“Once I finish my education, I want a re-education in being Māori by returning to my whenua on the East Coast. I’ve lived all of my life as an urban Māori and I’ve felt displaced and have had to fight to learn reo and tikanga. I want to be immersed in that culture I missed out on,” she says.


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