Karen Turanga v4

Karen Turanga

Kāi Tahu

After 30 years working as a dental hygienist, Karen Turanga (Kāi Tahu) wanted a qualification to back up her experience.

Hauora Health Scholarship

Karen Turanga v4

In 2020, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Health in Poutū-manahau (Population Health) at the University of Waikato, saying it was “never too late to chase a dream”.

In April, she graduated from University’s Te Kohinga Mārama Marae, standing out among the other graduates with her bright pink hair and korowai ngahere of brown, white and green feathers.

“It’s been a great day full of lots of emotions.”

She carried a framed photograph of her mother and  grandmother as she went up to receive her tohu mātauranga (degree), carrying the wairua of her tūpuna (ancestors).

There were tears, nerves and excitement, but the moment her whānau approached the marae area to honour her with karanga, haka and waiata was particularly special. Her two sons, Toma and James, were there too, along with her partner Matthew, and wider whānau.

Karen grew up in the South Island, attended Ashburton College, and left school after Year 11, joining the New Zealand Defence Force. There she developed a career in dentistry, working in both military and private practice as a dental hygienist over the next three decades. She was involved in the New Zealand Dental Hygienist Association, and served as president and on the executive. However, she wanted to do more.

“I did my clinical training in the Army, but I had no formal qualification. When I saw the Bachelor of Health degree, I knew that this was the ideal opportunity to fix that,” says Karen.

“I came here with the thought of just getting these silly little letters behind my name, because without them it's another layer of glass ceiling. However, what it did was open a lot of opportunities to make a difference.”

Karen has a passion for research that makes an impact in the lives of others and particularly Māori.

She’s enrolled in the Master of Social Sciences degree in Social Policy at Waikato, and isn’t ruling out doing her PhD in the future.

“I love the research space and working with and for the community. As long as I can use it to give back, I will be happy.”

Alongside her master’s, Karen is contracted to do a dental study on hāpū māmā (pregnant women) for Te Whatu Ora Waikato - Māori Equity Strategy & Research.

“We are working with wahine māmā and wahine hāpu to understand where there might be gaps to improve the oral health of children under five years old, looking at behavioural factors, marketing materials and understanding how the access to or knowledge of dental services can be improved.”

Karen enjoyed her studies at Waikato, and the support she received from teachers and classmates. She received the inaugural Braemar Charitable Trust Scholarship in Health in 2021, a University of Waikato Summer Research Scholarship (2021-22) and the Hauora Health Scholarship (2020-2022).

Karen encourages others to give University a go.

“Age isn’t a barrier either, so it's never too late,” says Karen.

“Don’t be afraid to try; and it's okay if it doesn’t work out first time, because learning what doesn’t work for you is just as important as finding out what does.”

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