Buddy system leads to study success

22 May 2019
Susan Wingfield, Tuakana, for Department of Statistics, Faculty of Science,
Susan Wingfield, Tuakana, for Department of Statistics, Faculty of Science

Susan Wingfield (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Maniapoto) is in charge of a programme in Statistics that turbo-charges Māori and Pacific students.

Since 2004, the Professional Teaching Fellow has been the department's coordinator of Tuākana, a type of buddy system where, she says, “Māori and Pacific students come together, to study together, learn together, achieve together, succeed together and celebrate together. Not just in statistics, but also in other subject areas too”.

Tuākana programmes exist across the university, and recognise that Māori and Pacific young people often face challenges in a university environment.

The programme draws on the Māori concept of tuākana-teina where those with particular skills, expertise or knowledge (the older siblings or cousins, known as tuākana) teach or share these with others who are new or beginners (their juniors, or teina). Thus, a critical part of the programme is senior students tutoring and mentoring new students. 

According to research, students who engage with Tuākana are more likely to not only maintain their grades, but improve them.

As coordinator, Susan decides which statistics courses will have tutors and who they will be. Tutors are “usually high-achieving students who have been involved with Tuākana right from the start”, she says. “They already know how Tuākana works, are fully dedicated to helping students succeed, and also care a great deal about other people.”

There is a dedicated Tuākana space in the Science building, which is shared between Mathematics, Statistics and Physics. Here you’ll often find Susan teaching alongside Tuākana colleague Dr Heti Afimeimounga (Ha’atafu Tongatapu).

Susan manages the programme’s administration, organises events, and provides references for Tuākana students who are applying for jobs, scholarships and internships. She also works closely with other Tuākana coordinators in the Faculty of Science to stay in tune with ideas or practices that are having a positive effect on Māori and Pacific students.

Susan enjoys the role for “lots of reasons”, she says. But the main reason is the students themselves. “Some of them are truly inspiring, and a lot of the time I’m learning from them just as much as they’re learning from me.”

Students’ feedback paints a picture of a culturally safe environment built on collective whānau principles where students motivate and look after each other. They particularly value access to top-quality tutoring: Said one: “You feel comfortable asking those ‘dumb questions’.” According to another, Tuākana “was a lifesaver for me. I wouldn’t have made it through the course otherwise”. For a Tuākana tutor, the programme was “a chance to give back”.

Among Statistics alumni who went through the Tuākana programme were Richard Hopkins, now a Senior Commercial Pricing Analyst at BP, and Eva Laurenson, now Policy Officer at New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade.

Tuākana’s roots go back to 1991, when concern arose about the poor representation of Māori and Pacific Island students in science, along with a poor retention rate. Biologist Professor Michael Walker (Te Whakatōhea) asked a class of undergraduate Māori and Pacific Island students what they felt they needed in order to stay at University and succeed.

The consensus was that they did not see the university as having a place for them, and  these observations informed the way the Tuākana programme was built. Now, 27 years later, most of the University’s Māori and Pacific students engage with Tuākana.   

For more information on Tuākana, click here.