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Kahurangi Tipene is proof that an education immersed in te reo Māori can enhance an academic career. Photo: Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust.

Kahurangi Tipene (Waikato) has always wanted to advocate for and uplift others, and has found a space to do this through her PhD studies at Otago. She is also proof that an education immersed in te reo Māori can enhance an academic career.

“I’m in a Western institution. I still hold onto my values, and my tikanga and my reo. Because without my reo I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Tipene says.

Tipene is a raukura (graduate) of Te Wharekura o Rākaumangamanga, a kura kaupapa Māori (full Māori language immersion school), based in Rāhui-Pōkeka Huntly.

Most of her assignments for undergraduate study - a major in Māori studies and minor in psychology at Otago, were submitted in te reo.

“Te reo Māori is my first language. It’s how I best express myself,” says Tipene.

This year, she is the recipient of three scholarships to support her Doctorate study.

One is from Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Māori – Māori Language Commission for writing her PhD thesis in te reo Māori. Another is from Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust, for her PhD study as a former student of kōhanga reo. The third is a Waikato-Tainui Doctoral Grant.

Tipene also has a PhD position, funded as part of a project supported by a Marsden Grant, which weaves into a wider story that begins decades ago with a whānau Māori from Tauranga.

Members of the McLeod whānau were dying of diffuse gastric cancer (cancer that occurs in the stomach lining that is undetectable until it has advanced to an incurable stage), in such high numbers that some believed the whānau to be cursed.

Family member Maybelle McLeod contacted Professor Tony Reeves and Professor Parry Guilford, a cancer geneticist from the School of Biomedical Sciences at Otago, and they set up a co-governance agreement. Together they traced whakapapa and tested whānau. They identified an inherited mutation in the CDH1 gene.

There is a 50/50 chance of inheriting this genetic mutation, which gives carriers an approximately 70% chance of developing hereditary diffuse gastric cancer and approximately 40% chance of lobular breast cancer.

Last year marked 25 years since they made this scientific breakthrough, which has saved many lives through proactive testing to identify carriers and subsequent clinical management for carriers.

Associate Professor Karyn Paringatai (Ngāti Porou), with Te Tumu – School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies at Otago, discovered through this testing that she is a carrier of this mutated gene. She had her stomach removed as a preventative measure.

She has gone on to establish the project “E kore au e ngaro! The enduring legacy of whakapapa” and received Marsden Grant funding to help to tell the social side of this genetic mutation. Tipene joined this project’s team in 2020.

"I’m really fortunate to have Kahurangi as part of this project, and for her to write her PhD in te reo Māori. It really is a true testament to the power of kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa, and to her whānau and kaiako for providing her with that type of educational journey. And now we all get to reap the benefits!” Associate Professor Paringatai says.

Tipene’s PhD thesis project is to uplift the stories and speak of the McLeod whānau experience.

“I am elevating their voices, so other whānau and people around the world who have this mutation can recognise themselves in, and learn from, this story,” Tipene says.

“It is all based around whānau and uplifting one another. The whānau haven’t had the same struggles with the health system as many Māori do. They have good relationships with all the health professionals and specialists.”

The other part of Tipene’s PhD is on what it’s like to go through the health system - the testing, the surveillance, surgeries, post-surgery. She also shares many perspectives: “This is the story not only of the carriers, but the family around them as well.”

Tipene is now living back in Huntly and working on her thesis, which she plans to complete by February 2024. It has given her an opportunity to extend her te reo Māori academic skills to another level.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am without the people around me – my Mum and Dad, going through the kōhanga, kura kaupapa and Te Tumu. It’s the people around me who make me the person I am, and I give all my thanks back to them.”

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