Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon
Marea Colombo image 940

Dr Marea Colombo was the first person from Otago to be awarded the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi-New Zealand Centre (IITD-NZC) Fellowship.

Dr Marea Colombo has always known a lot can be learnt from indigenous communities, and a recent trip to India where she worked with historically marginalised communities has reinforced that.

Marea, a teaching fellow in Otago’s Department of Psychology, spent two weeks in India last month after winning the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi-New Zealand Centre (IITD-NZC) Fellowship. She is the first person from Otago to be awarded the Fellowship, and at the age of 32, the youngest.

Like winners before her, Marea was based at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. But unlike her predecessors, she chose to spend her time working with students in the Centre Against Caste Inequity rather than concentrating on research.

“In the past the recipients tended to get to India and talked to the academics and design some research.

“I believe I’m the first person who said ‘I’m actually just going to engage with students’. The remit is about building relationships. I think there’ll be research that comes out of my visit, but I don’t think we have to enter with that,” Marea says.

Marea started her working life at Otago in the Pacific Island Centre. Now, as part of the Psychology Department, she works closely with both Māori and Pacific Islands students. It was a given that she would spend her time in India learning about marginalised groups in the Indian caste system.

Historically, the Indian caste system categorised people into distinct hierarchical groups based on birth, with each caste traditionally assigned specific occupations and societal roles, shaping interactions and opportunities within Indian society. And while discrimination on the basis of caste was outlawed by the Indian Government in 1948, the effects of the system linger on.

She timed her visit to coincide with the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations, an important event on the Indian calendar held to commemorate Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the country’s most prominent social reformers and the chief architect of the Indian constitution.

For the first time, students at the IIT Dehli were running their own week-long event to celebrate the occasion—called the Jai Bhim Saptaha. This festival was organised by students and staff, including her host for the Fellowship, Professor Yashpal Jogdand. Along with helping with and attending the celebrations, Marea hosted two workshops, one open to any of the institute’s 6,000 students on the ‘Perfect Student’, and another just for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribal students on building  confidence.

During these workshops, Marea was able to use knowledge she had learned working at Otago to try to understand the specific context for students at IIT-Delhi. Many of the conversations echoed discussions she has had with indigenous communities at Otago.

“The narratives that I was hearing when I worked here are not dissimilar to what I was hearing there, which is sad in some way, but also really inspiring because we can see that people are trying to work towards a global good of how to support the success of our students.

“I didn’t know all the context behind what I was hearing about the system, but what I do know is that students on campus right now feel the lingering effects of that, whether that is in terms of access to education that got them here, whether that is in terms of financial resourcing for them to succeed at university, or whether that is because they feel that their energy is split between their family and their work life. And again, I’ve heard these things before.

“We are really lucky here at Otago that we are many steps ahead to be in the space where we understand we have these unique relationships both tangata whenua and the Pacific, and whether we do it right or wrong all the time, we are attempting to remedy those relations.”

It was an emotional workshop and Marea got the sense that students there were still working to understand how their identity fits in to the university context. She spent a lot of time asking how their identity can support their success.

“A big part of that was using psychology research to say, ‘identity is a real strength’.

“I wouldn’t say they held anger, but they held a lot of fear. Fear about their own success, and fear that they represent their whole group so if they don’t do well, their whole group doesn’t well. Again, this is not an uncommon sentiment; I’ve heard it before.”

Marea Colombo and students at IIT Delhi

Dr Marea Colombo and students from her workshop, The Perfect Student, at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi last month.

But what Marea had to say was new to many of the students.

“It felt good because students said that they hadn’t heard some of the things I was saying. ‘You are valuable, you have knowledge that other people don’t have, strength that will help you succeed and there are skills that you have that you need to use for your advantage because people who haven’t had your life experience don’t have it’.

“And I think they felt really touched that I came and participated in the freedom march with them and I think they liked that someone who wasn’t part of the Indian context came and said ‘I’m actually really interested in this, I really care about how you’re doing’.”

India’s colonial past is still young, and like Aotearoa there is progress in creating an equitable society, but not everyone is on board.

“Anyone who thinks decolonising is going back in time has misunderstood what people are asking. People aren’t saying we need to digress, but that as we progress we need to include the voices of people we have ignored.”

Furthermore, there is a huge benefit to looking backward as we progress, Marea says.

For Marea, it is clear that the colonisation of education has also meant a huge amount of knowledge from the Indian context has been ignored.

“To think education began with colonialism is a blatant avoidance of history. The challenge facing universities is how, under these education systems, can we value and listen to students from diverse backgrounds and support their success.”

Marea left India with an “overwhelming feeling that I know so much more than the day I left for India but I’m also now acutely aware of how little I know”. She had the same feeling working in the Pacific Island Centre.

“I felt that there are things that students all over the world have, and that is a lot of guts, a lot of knowledge about what they need and a lot of grit and determination to try to get it.

“Going there made me realise that seems to be a universal thing and so I felt very humbled that students who have already had a harder road to get there are still willing to fight to make a safe space for students to come. And that is the same here at Otago even if we’re at different levels.

“I’m proud of Otago. I’ve been really fortune to have unique experiences at Otago and now I’ve had this unique experience there [in India].”

Her “biggest take away” is that we have lots to learn from indigenous people.

“Access alone is not the only thing that means students will succeed. Letting them in the doors and then not acknowledging the knowledge they come with is just as damaging as not letting them in at all.

“We need to understand that knowledge comes in all forms and we have so much to learn from our indigenous communities.”

The NZC at IIT Delhi is a unique partnership between one of India’s most prestigious universities, academics and researchers at all eight New Zealand universities. It is supported by Universities New Zealand and Education New Zealand to promote the study of New Zealand in India and contributes to the strengthening of the India-New Zealand relationship.

Back to top