Rainbow warrior set to graduate at new Tauranga campus

7 June 2019

Kat Clark graduates today with a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Waikato's Tauranga campus.

Kat Clark may prefer rainbow hues, but today Friday (June 7), she’ll be decked out in all black when she graduates with a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Waikato in Tauranga.

It’s another achievement knocked off for the feisty LGBTQ advocate and one she says may never have come had she believed the many teachers who said she was destined to fail. “I found it hard to concentrate in class,” Kat admits. “I was a bit of a trouble maker so I was told I’d never amount to anything.” Hope presented itself in the form of a rainbow flag. Kat identified with the flag and all it stood for, it helped her acknowledge her true self and set her on the path to find her true calling.

Born in Russia, Ekaterina Ivanova Popovskya had been moved around to various orphanages before being adopted by her Kiwi parents and brought back to New Zealand. At four-years-old Katerina (Kat) Clark was reborn. Along with her adopted brother, Kat enjoyed a carefree childhood filled with memories of beach life, sports days and the love of a supportive family nestled in the idyllic Bay of Plenty. When Kat came out as lesbian in her mid-twenties it was like being born again, again. She says “something just clicked” when she accepted who she was and found her tribe within the rainbow community.

When she learnt that LGBTQ identified individuals suffer the highest rates of mental health and suicide attempts, she knew she wanted to be a change-maker. The catalyst to study social work came shortly after she created Tauranga Pryde, the first LGBTQ youth support group in Tauranga. “One night a young person rung me telling me they wanted to take their own life, I spent the next two hours convincing them not to. I focused on their strengths through conversation. I was naturally using strength-based theory, and successfully changed the young person’s way of thinking. That person is still alive today.”

Alongside her studies Kat’s list of achievements began to stack up. As well as running Tauranga Pryde for two years she set up the Rainbow Corner student support group (formerly housed at Toi Ohomai’s Windermere campus, now at the University of Waikato in Tauranga), represented the University as a student ambassador, won four government awards (including 2019 Local Hero New Zealander of the Year), spoke in Parliament, and has been confirmed as a speaker at TEDx Tauranga: REACTION (June 22).

That’s the Reader’s Digest version summed up in a nice, tidy bio. The longer version is where a particularly succinct Cher lyric comes in handy. “Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes”, sums up the pain Kat processes, often daily, when homophobia rears its ugly head. The 27-year-old will speak directly to that pain on stage at TEDx. With over 100 people nominated to speak, Kat was one of the ten chosen and it was a spoken word poem that won over the selection panel. She’ll share her own story of self-harm, attempted suicide and coming out but the crux of her talk focuses on the harmful words in everyday language that negatively impact young people.

When asked what words have impacted her lately she whips out her phone to show a recent Instagram DM: “F@#k gay people. You should not live you should all burn in earth and hell.” And it’s just one example of many. Does it make her sad? Yes. Does it fuel the rainbow warrior woman within? Also, yes. “I created LGBTQ support groups so no other person has to go through what I went through. I want people to be proud of who they are,” she says.

Kat credits the social work programme and the skills learnt in her role as a Waikato student ambassador as the best preparation for the job she landed earlier this year. “My degree allows me to use theories and methods in a way that empowers the individual, and for myself to understand that they are the expert in their own lives. I would never tell someone what they feel or need to do, but rather guide them the best I can in a positive direction. Social Work is all about being able to walk alongside people, support them through their struggles, unpack and understand their colourful lives.”

Newly created by the Waikato Students’ Union (WSU), the role of Student Support and Engagement Coordinator is the first dedicated WSU resource Tauranga students have had, and seems tailor made for Kat. “I always said I wanted to advocate for people, so when this role came up I knew in my heart it was perfect for me.” To coin a phrase from another successful Waikato alumna, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, being ‘youth adjacent’ probably helps too. “Having only just completed my studies I still vividly remember being on student struggle street. I know how important it is to self-care, and learn to manage study and home life,” she says.

On Friday, the seasoned speaker will deliver a heartfelt thank you to her peers and the social work team but admits when she was invited to represent her graduating class as student speaker, the request brought her to tears. Her grandfather and aunt are battling cancer so there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to travel from Levin to join in the day’s celebrations. “It would mean a lot for Pop to see me and hear me speak so I’m hopeful,” says Kat.

It’s fair to say she’s come a long way in four years and despite the struggles Kat wouldn’t change a thing. Virtually a year after a horrific soccer injury that nearly claimed her right foot, and put her career plans with the Police on indefinite hold, Kat will stride on to the graduation stage to accept her degree. One thing is for sure – she’ll do it with pride.

“Being a student shouldn’t limit you, I achieved more while being a student than I ever did before I started studying. Take that knowledge from the classroom and run with it and always stay humble.”

The Tauranga community is invited to celebrate with the 2019 graduates during the city procession that starts at Red Square on Spring Street at 11am, and moves through the CBD to the new campus on Durham Street.

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