A wall, a last-minute bus trip, and a whole lot of determination were the driving factors that set Taranaki-born Khey-Jhyn Martin on the path to study at the University of Waikato.
Khey-Jhyn already had job offers from both her social work placements before she had completed the requirements of her degree. Now she works for Tautoko Mai, a specialised agency in Tauranga that supports survivors of sexual harm, and recently secured a permanent position as a crisis social worker. She runs a women’s support group and is about to launch a parent’s support group. Khey-Jhyn also facilitates Mates and Dates, a healthy relationship programme for high school students.
Crediting her uncle, Eli Martin, for inspiring her to attend University, Khey-Jhyn says she also puts a little bit down to a well-timed day off school.
“My uncle Eli started a science degree at Waikato the year I was born. He was the first in my whānau to get a degree. He had his own wall in our homestead in Waverley where his degree and photo were hung up. I used to be cheeky and ask my Nan why I couldn’t have my photo on the wall and she always said to me, ‘You have to do something special to get up on the wall’. I remember wanting my photo on that wall so bad.”
Sadly, as her days at New Plymouth Girls’ High School were nearing an end, Khey-Jhyn’s goal to find that ‘something special’ seemed out of reach. That was until she joined her mates on a bus trip bound for the University of Waikato Open Day.
“It was my uncle’s old uni so I was interested but, honestly, it was more to have a day off school,” she admits. “I poked my head into a social work breakout room and discovered my future passion, almost by accident.”
“The first thing I remember is the lecturer, Simon Lowe, saying if you’re not willing to move to Tauranga then this degree isn’t for you, since it’s only taught at the Tauranga campus. My uncle lived in Mount Maunganui and I loved the thought of living there so I carried on listening. When I got back on the bus I knew I’d be making an application as soon as I got home.”
Despite having no University Entrance, the teen was determined. She moved to Hamilton and completed a Certificate of University Preparation (CUP) programme to prepare herself for tertiary study then joined the social work programme the following semester in Tauranga. She admits, it wasn’t easy.
“Statistically, the odds were stacked against me,” says Khey-Jhyn. “A young Māori woman with no UE, moving to a new town, a teenage sweetheart back home… I could’ve easily given up and gone back to Taranaki.”
But she didn’t give up and says knowing her ‘why’ is what kept her eye on the prize.
“My ‘why’ was my whānau. They were always there cheering from the side lines and supporting me unconditionally. That’s what motivated me to stick with it.”
Khey-Jhyn says the highlights of her studies were her placements at Tautoko Mai and Merivale Community Centre, and attending a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Youth Diversity Forum.
She recommends the social work degree wholeheartedly to anyone who has a genuine passion and empathy for people and the resilience to see the degree to fruition. Khey-Jhyn doesn’t sugar coat the intensity of the workload though.
“It was hard mahi,” she says. “It’s a long degree and it needs to be because it naturally selects the people who will make good social workers. This programme prepares students really well for placement.”
Although Khey-Jhyn was eligible to graduate in December 2020, she held over another six months to be able to walk the stage with the classmates she started with.
“The great thing about the social work programme is that over the four years you build strong friendships. I came to uni not knowing anyone and my classmates were an incredible support.”
Along with her friends, Khey-Jhyn's Tauranga and Taranaki whānau, about 20 in total, supported her at graduation.
“Nana Lovey, Uncle Eli, my partner Kingsley, and mum and dad came to watch the ceremony and then the whole whānau spent the weekend together. We ate kai, played card games and did some karaoke – my whānau all enjoy a bit of a singalong and some family competition.”
Now Khey-Jhyn’s degree and photo has found their place on Koro and Nana’s wall but she might not be finished with study just yet since the family competition extends beyond karaoke.
“Uncle Eli came back to Waikato while I was part way through my degree. Now he’s got a Graduate Diploma in Teaching too so I still have some catching up to do on the wall,” she laughs.
On graduation day, Khey-Jhyn was proud to don the graduation gown, trencher hat and a very special taonga gifted by her nana.
“Nana hand-made a korowai for my uncle’s graduation and she made one for me too. It’s another thing we have in common along with being proud alumni of Waikato University.”
Khey-Jhyn Martin graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work from Te Wānanga o Ngā Kete - Division of Arts, Law, Psychology and Social Sciences in the second of two ceremonies held on 11 June 2021 at the University of Waikato’s CBD campus in Tauranga.