Seven years ago, if you’d told Niki Wade that being a sole parent on a benefit was a transitional stage before her life changed for the better, she would have laughed or, more likely, cried.
But last week there were only smiles when Niki received a Master of Applied Psychology, her second degree from the University of Waikato in Tauranga. Reflecting on her journey to graduation day, Niki describes her feelings in one word - “thankful”.
Thankful because, if it wasn’t for the knockbacks she got from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) while trying to get off the sole parent benefit and back into the workforce, she may never have pursued tertiary study at all.
“I approached WINZ several times asking for help to get on refresher courses so I could update my administration skills, the work I’d done before I had my daughter and became a sole parent,” says Niki. “Sadly, every time I asked or sought approval to attend, each fell through at the WINZ end.”
Despite her frustration, Niki was determined to provide better opportunities for herself and her daughter. She waited until Marni was ready to start school and enrolled to study a Bachelor of Social Sciences majoring in Psychology at the University of Waikato.
“Psychology was a field I’d been interested in for years so I took the chance to fulfil my dreams, gain a qualification and try to ensure a more secure future.”
“Also, from a financial standpoint, being on a sole support benefit is tough. I knew that if I went back into the workforce I would never go back to those financial circumstances again to take up study. If I was ever going to do it, it had to be then.”
Niki wasn’t sure whose first day at school was toughest, hers or Marni’s.
“I was terrified,” she admits. “There was a lot of self-doubt whether I could do it.”
Her mindset changed after a successful first year that saw Niki invited to join the University’s chapter of the Golden Key International Honours Society – an academic society that recognises students in the top 15% of those studying at the University. By the time she graduated in 2017, she had maintained an A+ average across her papers.
When Niki embarked on masters study, under the supervision of Dr Ottilie Stolte, it was with renewed confidence. Niki’s personal experience of being on a sole parent benefit influenced her research focus. Her thesis titled, “The treadwheel of welfare: A narrative exploration of sole mothers’ experiences of accessing support from the Aotearoa/New Zealand welfare system”, aims to contribute to an alternative narrative in the, often polarising, welfare discussion.
Niki explored the structural factors that impact the everyday lives of sole mothers who access support from WINZ, such as negative stereotyping, public opinion, political ideology, institutional racism, media coverage, and service access.
“I hope that my research gives people a better insight and understanding of the human element,” says Niki. “In turn, that may lead to higher solidarity and foster positive change.”
A few setbacks meant Niki’s masters took a little longer than she would’ve liked but, on Friday (11 June), her degree was conferred at the second of two graduation ceremonies held at the Tauranga campus.
Niki beamed when she accepted her degree as daughter Marni, husband Juddy, mum Marie, dad Ditch, and step-mum Aym, looked on with pride. Originally from Dargaville, and of Ngāti Apakura, Maniapoto and Tainui descent, Niki says whānau support has been integral to her success.
“I started my university journey as a single mum and without the help of my own mum I don’t know how far I would have gone with my studies. Juddy and I got married in 2017 and he took onboard the financial responsibilities of our family for me to fulfil my ambitions. And my daughter Marni was endlessly patient and understanding when I just had to study.”
Niki recalls many highlights of her time at Waikato. Receiving three postgraduate scholarships - the University of Waikato Research Master’s Scholarship, Māori & Psychology Research Unit Graduate Research Scholarship, and the Acorn Foundation Adult Learner Scholarship for Women - is right up there.
Likewise, the people Niki met along the way, whose encouragement kept her going.
Her masters supervisor, Dr. Ottilie Stolte, continues to inspire Niki.
“Her passion and knowledge motivate me within myself and my work, but more importantly in the grand goal of wanting to positively contribute to human flourishing.”
Also, with the Tauranga campus boasting a strong mature student cohort, Niki discovered parents and sole parents in her classes who understood the challenges of juggling study, parenthood and finances.
Lastly, Niki says as a volunteer at the Tauranga Foodbank, the clients there have been a constant source of inspiration. “The stories and circumstances they so generously shared with me remind me why this work is so important.”
While Niki relished taking time out to enjoy her graduation, the time out was short lived. She’s currently working toward a Postgraduate Diploma in the Practice of Community Psychology and, next month, starts an internship with Tauranga Living Without Violence (TLWV). Once she’s completed the requirements of the postgraduate diploma, Niki will apply to be a registered Community Psychologist.
Niki’s goal is to get a few years practice under her belt, before moving into research and social policy to help effect meaningful change for vulnerable and/or marginalised groups.
“I believe that my life experience and seven years of university study have prepared me well and gaining the coalface knowledge is a must next step for me. From there, the possibility of working at an upstream, preventative level to help people and societies flourish is what I feel passionate about.”
Niki Wade’s thesis, “The treadwheel of welfare: A narrative exploration of sole mothers’ experiences of accessing support from the Aotearoa/New Zealand welfare system”, is available to view via the University of Waikato research commons here