Graduates Amy Hudson, left, and Ateliana Taufa.
Amy Hudson spent much of her final year at her Kaikohe school as a class of one; her peers had either left school or were repeating year 12.
But on Saturday, Amy joined her many classmates to cross the stage with a Bachelor of Pharmacy, and as one of the first professional health graduates from the Socioeconomic Equity Project (EQ) pathway.
The University of Otago's EQ project – launched in 2019 – specifically supports domestic students from decile one to three schools to progress into health professional programmes, and ultimately the health workforce.
Amy say she always wanted to go to university, but was well aware she wasn't getting the same preparation as others.
“I knew my situation was definitely unique; it's not every day you hear of a class of one,” the 22-year-old says.
“Because my school was small and understaffed in the secondary department, I did two classes by correspondence and often found myself sitting in with younger classes to have some face time with my teachers.
“My teachers were very supportive but often pressed for time with their younger classes so while they helped me where they could I knew students at other schools had better resources and more time to spend with their teachers.”
The EQ pathway helped level those inequities.
“Had EQ not reached out to me I'm not sure where I would be today, before them I had no idea how to study for myself and get the best results. The tutors and tutorials were a massive help not to mention the sense of belonging the group has given me.”
Amy returns to Northland after graduation to a job as an intern pharmacist in Kawakawa, about 30km from her hometown.
Ateliana Taufa (22), who graduated with a Bachelor of Oral Health on Saturday, didn't realise how under resourced her South Auckland decile one school was until she was in year 12.
“Our school did an exchange program with neighbouring (decile 10) Kings College to see if they are more exposed and had more resources compared to what we had. The options are limited at our school in terms of sports and academics compared to the vast variety of options available at Kings.”
Despite this, she loved school.
“The majority of the student population at my school are Pasifika, so we are grounded because our backgrounds are similar; most of our parents and grandparents have the same story of migrating from the islands to the shores of New Zealand for a better life. So there's no competition and everyone looks out for one another.
"Sometimes you are looked down upon as being in the EQ program and people assume you don't have to get good marks to get into a health professional course – but they're wrong. We have to get to the same level as everyone else." - Ateliana Taufa
“But there are also challenges for us Pasifika because we are family orientated and we would rather drop out of school and work to support our families than to watch them struggle. Many students don't prioritise their education.”
Ateliana always knew she wanted a career in dentistry, but like Amy, her path was not “the norm”.
“Most of my peers went on to work to help their parents, some dropped out before year 13, some went on to start their own little families and only a few went to university.”
She credits the EQ programme for her tertiary success.
“Overall I wouldn't be at this stage in my journey if it wasn't for the EQ program with the extra tutorial and kai they provide. The lovely staff have supported us through this journey and they've created a home away from home. They provide a shoulder for us to lean on whenever needed.”
But such pathways still come with a hurtful, and misguided stigma.
“It can be a bit fakama at times when people ask what the EQ program is and have to explain that it is a program for students from decile 1–3 schools associated with low socioeconomic backgrounds. Sometimes you are looked down upon as being in the EQ program and people assume you don't have to get good marks to get into a health professional course – but they're wrong. We have to get to the same level as everyone else.”
Amy and Ateliana are two of the first seven EQ students who graduated with a professional health degree on Saturday – they joined three peers from physiotherapy and another two from pharmacy. Twenty-four students were admitted into a health professional programme in the inaugural intake in 2019; graduates from the longer dentistry (2) and medicine (15) programmes will follow in the future. This year there are also 11 EQ students who have completed Bachelor or Honours degrees in Science and Arts, and may yet apply for a professional programme as a graduate.
EQ project manager Ana Rangi says the programme – like others that fall under the Te Kauae Parāoa policy – recognises the significant educational and health inequities that exist within Aotearoa, and EQ students' potential to make a positive difference within their diverse communities.
“Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and low decile schools are significantly underrepresented in tertiary study and professions,” she says.
“They are more likely to experience socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, be the first in family to attend university, come with fewer NCEA credits, particularly in subjects which are fundamental for health science study, and have English as an additional language.”
“They are incredible role models for their peers at secondary, proving they can do it too. This has a powerful influence to inspire and change outlooks." - Ana Rangi
The path to university has often been far from straight-forward for these students.
“Obviously the financial outlay needed for university study, and at times, lack of guidance and support from school and home are factors. In terms of education, EQ students frequently won't have access to all the higher level science and maths subjects at school that they need to undertake the health science first year course.”
There may also be a lack of specialist teachers, equipment and resources, and often a specific assessment is not offered. In these cases, they may have to go to another school for the class or do correspondence study with little support.
“All of these factors, which are absolutely no fault of the student, impact on their ability to start the first year of health sciences as academically well-prepared as their peers,” Ms Rangi says.
The EQ Project helps mitigate some of these complex challenges EQ students encounter so they have a fairer opportunity to progress on to health professional study.
“It is an important initiative to address this disparity towards a health workforce that accurately reflects the demographic make-up of society,” she says.
Unfortunately the schools and communities EQ students “so proudly represent are often stigmatised, which can continue through their study”.
“EQ students have to meet the same entry standards to programmes as everyone, but their uneven starting point is frequently misunderstood and minimised.
“They are incredible role models for their peers at secondary, proving they can do it too. This has a powerful influence to inspire and change outlooks.
“The 'real world' understanding and community connection they bring to their study and future practice as health professionals can help educate against socioeconomic 'class' discrimination and make a significant difference to effectively address unmet health need and inequity.”