Even before he enrolled at CPIT (now Ara Institute of Canterbury), Henare Te Aika-Puanaki felt right at home in the place he was to study for the next three years.
"I had a meeting with the then Head of Department, Haani Huata," he says. "I felt very safe and was taken very seriously in terms of what the expectations were around bilingualism and total immersion teaching during the three years of the degree. I also loved the campus and the facilities at Te Puna Wānaka."
Henare was in his final year of high school at the time and his meeting convinced him to enrol for the Bachelor of Language (Maori). Now having graduated and started a career, he looks back fondly on his time at CPIT.
"I enjoyed the approach at Te Puna Wānaka. Our programme felt more like a whānau – it made my time at CPIT very special. I grew very fond of particular tutors for their passion, expertise and kind manner with students. I was nibbling at the feet of the giants of te ao Māori – at least in my view. They shaped me into the speaker and teacher of te reo Māori that I am today. I really looked up to them."
Particular aspects of the degree programme also impressed Henare. "One key strength was the focus on Ngai Tahu content. There were papers and segments dedicated to Ngāi Tahu tribal knowledge and development, which is key when working in the context of the South Island and Waitaha, where Ngāi Tahu are the tangata whenua."
Henare also loved the Te Reo o Te Marae paper. "It was neat - we were trained in the oratory arts and required to run our own pōwhiri, including catering, as an assessment. Pōwhiri could be the pinnacle of Maori interaction, so it was quite a privilege and it gave us a taste of the roles we could aspire to, in time."
Towards the end of his degree, Henare's tutors supported him to continue his te reo education at Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo – the Institute of Excellence in Māori. Although already fluent in te reo, he says this experience increased his language and cultural understanding of te ao Māori to a very high level.
Today, Henare is a te reo Māori teacher at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Whānau Tahi. His role involves teaching in total immersion and working with colleagues to raise the overall quality of te reo at the school. He also indulges his passion for kapa haka, travelling frequently with students to local and national competitions. "I have the privilege of being a keeper of our language and tikanga. It's daunting but exciting too."