University of Waikato graduate puts the ‘social’ in social work

25 Jun 2021

Four years, juggling four jobs while studying towards a degree in social work, Nikita Costello was up at dawn for work and rarely in bed before midnight. The schedule was unrelenting. There were many tears and days where she could have thrown it in, but she believes the sacrifice was worth it.

Nikita Costello (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui) graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Waikato in Tauranga. She's the first Costello in her whānau to graduate with a university degree.

Nikita (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tainui) secured her dream job in January this year and celebrated her graduation at the University of Waikato in Tauranga earlier this month.

“It was a hard slog but I made it,” says Nikita who became the first in her family to gain a university degree when she graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work.

Now, Nikita works as a youth social worker at Tauranga’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), a job she knew she wanted even before she started studying. The love she has for her family helped influence Nikita’s choice of career.

“Between me and my wife Kelly, we have 13 nieces and nephews. They are my ‘why’. Life is very different now with many more challenges than when I was a kid. It’s tough out there for many of our young people and their families.”

“I want to help create a better future for the kids in my family and the kids in our community – to empower them and give them the tools to be resilient.”

When Nikita began her 60-day social work placement at CAMHS, she was fortunate to work across all three teams – maternal mental health, child, and adolescent. Her fixed term role in the adolescent team sees her work with 13-18 year olds with moderate to severe mental health needs. She’s grateful for the support she receives from the group of experienced clinicians she works with.

“I am in awe of their practice,” she says. “I’m learning something new every day and am fortunate to have such amazing mentors.”

A few days before graduation, Nikita was thrilled when CAMHS made it clear; they want to keep her on. Her career goals are falling nicely into place. She’s back studying too. Every few months she travels to Auckland for block courses to complete a Postgraduate Certificate in Mental Health and Addiction at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

“Right now, I’m all about ‘show me the permanent contract’,” she laughs. “I want to work four days a week and spend the other day volunteering my time and skills to give back to the community. I’d love to do some more mahi for the Tauranga Youth Development Team (TYDT).”

Nikita feels like she’s in the best place right now. It was a long road though with a few speed bumps along the way.

Born in Thames, she grew up in Whangamata and lived there until she was 15, before moving to Ngatea to live with her nana. A talented basketball player, Nikita moved for the sports opportunities Hauraki Plains College could offer. However, it wasn’t enough to keep her engaged with school.

“I got NCEA level 1 and gapped it in year 11,” she says. “I always saw myself as sporty and practical, not academic, so school didn’t seem a good fit for me or maybe I wasn’t the right fit for school.”

Nikita put her practical skills to good use and got a job servicing boat motors. After a couple of years, her mum strongly suggested she enlist in the army. Nikita sailed through the physical test but, when she discovered her sister and future brother-in-law were moving to Wellington, she passed on Waiouru Military Camp and caught a plane to the capital city instead.

Nikita waited tables, trained to be a barista, worked in bars and gained her manager’s license. When her sister moved to Tauranga, Nikita, 17 at the time, stayed in Wellington and lived independently. She loved every minute of it. When she found out she was going to be an aunty, the pull of family was too strong so she moved to Tauranga to be close by.

After arriving at graduation in a '67 Camaro, Nikita spent the day celebrating with family and friends.

Naturally sociable, and a self-confessed “talker”, Nikita prides herself on being able to connect with just about anyone. She used her people skills to rise to management roles in the retail and hospitality sectors. She was great at what she did and amassed a CV’s worth of experience and references to prove it but, on her 25th birthday, she decided she wanted more out of life.

The catalyst to pursue tertiary study came about when Nikita did a charity fundraiser in support of her nephew who went through nearly 100 surgeries to repair blocked airways in his throat. Shaving her head earned Nikita more than $7,000 for Starship Children’s Hospital and the Child Cancer Foundation. More than that, she liked the feeling of performing a selfless act.

“When you work behind a bar or serve someone in a shop, you get to know your regulars. There’s often an element of counselling involved when they share details about themselves and their lives,” she says.

“For me, reward and satisfaction came with helping people so I started to research professions where I could really make a difference.”

Nikita’s online search brought up the University of Waikato social work programme, offered solely at the Tauranga campus. Being able to stay and study in the Bay without disrupting hers and Kelly’s close-knit family life was enough incentive for Nikita to enrol.

Studying as a mature student wasn’t easy. Academic writing and referencing took a while to get used to, as did living on a student budget. Nikita worked as a barista in the early mornings before heading to university, and did bar work in the evenings. She took on casual work as a student ambassador for the University, helping at events such as careers expos and Open Days. Somehow, she also squeezed in 12 hours a week with TYDT while she studied, and upwards of 50 hours at their 100% Summer Series events.

Nikita also had loss to deal with almost every year of her time at Waikato.

“I lost a few friends to suicide and my grandad passed away in my second year. Every year there was a big loss. Finally, last year there was a win when Kelly and I got married.”

Kelly, a self-employed graphic designer, was Nikita’s biggest champion and pulled her through the days when she was ready to give up. With the unwavering support of both their families, Nikita stuck it out.

“The social work degree brings people together,” says Nikita. “There are the lecturers who nourish you to get you through to the finish line and the friends you make who become like whānau. They say it takes a community to raise a child but it takes a community to get through a degree too.”

Never one to do things by halves, on the day of her much-anticipated graduation, Nikita rolled up to the University’s Durham Street entrance in a ’67 Chevrolet Camaro. When she leapt out, she was all smiles and nervous energy.

“I can’t wait for my family to see me get my degree," she said. "And I can’t wait to throw my trencher hat in the air. Then it’s time to party!”

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