Nicole's first
day at uni

Tokoroa's Nicole Rusk heads off
to the University of Waikato
on a Te Ara ki Angitū scholarship

On top of the fridge at Linda and Bryce Rusk’s Tokoroa home are two framed photos of their kids, Steven and Nicole.

Steven has already left home and is studying for a Bachelor of Science majoring in genetics at Otago, but today is all about Nicole. As the weekend comes to a close, she's getting ready for her first day at Waikato University.

In the kitchen, Linda puts her arm around her daughter as they have a nervous giggle about what Monday will bring. Will the campus seem enormous and scary? Will Nicole be able to find her way around? What really goes on during O-Week?

Nicole has signed up for a Bachelor of Social Sciences at Waikato. The 18-year-old likes learning about how people think and live, and what they believe in.

“I’ve always loved people and cultures, so I think studying that will be really interesting. I just want to learn about how different people tick.”

Outside, Rodger the family’s pet staffie, has been waiting for some attention. Nicole heads out to see him.

"Oh Rodger," she says. "What have you been doing?"

Rodger sits up on his haunches and turns on his best “it wasn’t me” dog-smile, but some glue stuck to the fur on his back suggests he’s been up to something not altogether innocent.

He stays for a minute then takes off to scratch around under the bushes for a bit. Nicole will miss him while she’s away studying, but she’ll be home from Hamilton every night thanks to a scholarship from the University.

Nicole is part of the University’s Te Ara ki Angitū: Pathways to Excellence programme, which means she can stay at home while she studies, catching a bus put on by the uni from South Waikato to the Hamilton campus each day.

“It’s so good being able to live at home instead of moving to the city,” she says, hoping that this link with home will make the transition to university life much easier.

The University launched the Te Ara ki Angitū: Pathways to Excellence programme in 2016 in South Waikato and expanded it to other regions in 2017. The programme now reaches 25 schools and communities across Hauraki, Thames-Coromandel, Matamata-Piako, Waikato, Otorohonga, South Waikato and Waitomo districts.

Te Ara ki Angitū makes university study more accessible to students by providing support and mentoring, a daily bus service to and from selected towns for $1 a ride, access to portable learning devices, and a fees scholarship worth up to $5000.

Nicole says being on the programme will make a huge difference to her. She knows others who wanted to go to uni but were scared of having a huge student loan and being in debt so young.

“They think they’ll just get a job now and maybe study later. I’ve heard that a lot. And there are kids who don’t think they’re good enough to go to uni, but I reckon just apply and see if you like it. Give it ago. It can be daunting too. It’s scary especially when you’re straight out of high school and you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Linda, a nurse at Tokoroa Hospital, is relieved that even though her youngest is heading off to uni, she’ll still be living at home, where Linda can keep an eye on her.

“I can’t believe the money Nicole’s going to save by being able to stay at home. Our son already has a massive student debt, but hopefully Nicole will be able to keep hers down and that will give her a big head start.”

Bryce, who has lived in Tokoroa all his life and works at a local engineering company, says his daughter’s thirst for knowledge has kept them on their toes.

“Our kids never stopped asking questions,” he says.

Monday morning rolls around.
Nicole hasn’t slept at all, and Linda’s pretty much the same. Bryce says goodbye to Nicole as she races off with her mum in the car to the bus stop.

On the bus, Nicole is greeted by Codey, a mate from her old high school, Forest View, who is in his second year of study at Waikato and is also on the Te Ara ki Angitū programme. He's full of good advice for Nicole, as she’s a mix of first-day nerves and excitement.

The bus pulls in to the uni. Nicole and the others from South Waikato are met by the University’s Future Student Advisers, who walk with them through the campus to the pōwhiri that has been put on to welcome new students at the University marae.

After the pōwhiri and a sausage sizzle, they meet other students and their mentors on the programme in the Whānau Room, a dedicated room set up for students from the regions who are going the extra mile for their education. The students spend some time getting to know each other and learning about what's coming up.

The campus seems unfamiliar and new, possibly even a little scary, but soon it’ll feel just like home.