KDee Aimiti Ma'ia'i named first Pasifika woman to receive Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford

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  •   New Zealand's first Pacific woman Rhodes Scholar KDee Aimiti Ma'ia'i left school at 16. Now she's heading to Oxford to do her doctorate.
     New Zealand's first Pacific woman Rhodes Scholar KDee Aimiti Ma'ia'i left school at 16. Now she's heading to Oxford to do her doctorate.

Brittany Keogh. (Reprinted from Stuff)

At 16, KDee Aimiti Ma'ia'i left school to work to support her family. Now, she's just become the first Pasifika woman to receive a prestigious scholarship to Oxford University.

Rhodes Scholarships are awarded annually to 95 exceptional students from 64 countries. They cover up to three years of fees and accommodations for postgraduate study.

Ma'ia'i is one of three Kiwi recipients who will head to the UK next September.

At Oxford, she'll complete a DPhil (the Oxford term for a PhD) in international development, focussing on how Pacific people respond to the ways in which New Zealand and Australia, America and China create foreign policy toward the Pacific Islands.

Ma'ia'i said leaving New Zealand and the Pacific region would be daunting but she was excited for what winning the scholarship meant for not only herself, but also other young Pacific people.

"I feel, I think as many Pacific people do, a big sort of responsibility to represent my family and Pacific community well. What it means isn't lost on me."

The 23-year-old completed a BA honours degree majoring in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland in two-and-a-half years. The programme usually takes four years.

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Coming from a family of academics – her grandfather was the first Samoan doctor to graduate from Otago Medical School – Ma'ia'i had always planned to go to university.

Then, at the start of Year 12, circumstances beyond her control led to the Avondale, West Auckland resident having to drop out of Rutherford College to provide her family with financial security.

Ma'ia'i worked full time for about four years before enrolling in a university foundation course and then in her degree.

Ma'ia'i said the fact she was the first Pacific woman Rhodes Scholarship recipient in the award's century-long history in New Zealand illustrated the countless artificial barriers Pacific people faced.

Schools and universities failed to serve Pacific people and media stories about Pacific people were often inaccurate and failed to reflect the diversity and beauty of Pacific culture, she said.

"We all need to be doing more, not just in Pacific communities  so that minority communities and ethnic communities can do everything that they want to do. Nothing should be off limits."

Victoria University of Wellington science graduate Isabella Lenihan-Ikin and Oliver Pooke, who studied chemistry at the University of Otago, were also awarded Rhodes Scholarships.

They will respectively research the impact of climate change on human health and the rise of populism.