It's not often you cry at a corporate event.
The opening line to this article popped into my head as we were
leaving the 10 Year Anniversary and Scholarship Awards of the First
Foundation in November 2008. But to explain the tears, I need to go
back a bit first.
I have been involved with the First Foundation in one way or
another for almost seven years. It dates back to my appointment as
the Ethics and Community Relations for Fonterra in early 2003. At
that time a colleague, Alison Andrew, asked me to meet with them as
she felt that the Foundation was a great strategic match with what
we were trying to achieve just after the merger.
What the Foundation Does
Within a minute of meeting them, I was sold. The concept was so
simple and so powerful. The Foundation was set up to enable
successful, resilient and 'go getter' students from low decile
schools to go to university through partnering them with a company
who pays most of their fees. In return, the students work weekends
and holidays as required for the company, thus paying towards the
scholarship. But wait, there's more! The First Foundation also sets
them with a mentor from another organisation to help them with the
possibly difficult transition from high school and into the first
two years at University. If there was ever an embodiment of 'a
hand up, not a hand out', this is it.
Founding the Foundation
Many years ago, when I first arrived in New Zealand, I watched
'Once Were Warriors' when it was first released. It was a culture
shock and I remember thinking, what can be done to help bright
young people who don't have access to role models or financial
support in New Zealand? It seems that the founder of the First
Foundation, Steven Carden, thought the same. At the age of 24, he
recognised that others don't have the support and resources he had
in achieving his degrees in law and arts. So he set out to make a
difference and, with tenacity and guts, created a scholarship-based
programme that would help remove the barriers that many talented
but financially disadvantaged students face.
Back in 2003 I was sold on this concept. After reviewing many
impressive CVs of bright young things and interviewing a couple, we
awarded the first Fonterra Scholarship. At the same time, I became
a mentor to another young woman immigrant who has since achieved
The Power of Education
Education to me is paramount. It is culturally very significant,
too as the written word and obtaining education is paramount in the
Jewish culture. I was brought up in a house were education was
all-important; my parents instilled in me that the best way to
achieve in life is through obtaining tertiary qualifications. And I
am the same now with my own children. Also, as a woman and an
immigrant to this country, I would have never been able to achieve
what I have had it not been for my hard work and success in my
It was also very telling that the prime-minister elect, John
Key, chose to fly especially from Wellington to attend the ceremony
on the fourth day after the election. This was his first official
function after being elected! His mother was a Jewish refugee from
Europe who became a single mother; John shared with us her
single-minded focus on the importance of education for her family
to get ahead.
As I listened to the inspiring speeches, I reflected on how
significant access to education has been for women's progress. It
is through our access to education that we have been able to
achieve all that we have in the past 40 years or so. Stats NZ show
that in 1971 women made up 30% of NZ tertiary education admissions.
In 2001 it was 57%.
On reflection, I don't think we have talked enough about
education on Professionelle and its significance, probably because
we, as most of us now, tend to take it for granted that our
daughters will be able to study whatever they choose. Yet this is
something that not that long ago was just unimaginable for many
women. I suspect many of our own mothers have no more than school
certificate, although many had the talent for much more.
Education is one of the things that is unique about the
Professionelle community. Of our 1300 members, 80% have tertiary
qualifications. And a third of all our members have post grad
qualifications. For New Zealand women overall those statistics are
just 20% and 6%... we are a highly educated group, indeed!
And so to the tears. All of this was running through my head as
I listened to the amazing stories of young men and women who have
overcome obstacles of economic disadvantage, social isolation and,
for some, very tough family backgrounds, and who have been able to
access high qualifications through the First Foundation.
Now, it's one thing to know that 164 students have participated
in the First Foundation's programme and that there are 99 current
schools involving 59 businesses in Auckland, Wellington and
Christchurch. But what left me with tears in my eyes - and glancing
around, there weren't many dry eyes in the room - were the personal
There was the story of a young woman who lost her mother and
lost her way, but when she decided to give education a go and did
well, her school introduced her to the First Foundation. She won
the scholarship and is now literally able to live her dreams. There
was also the young man who was abandoned by a parent and ended up
being raised by a friend's family. He won a scholarship that enabled him to pursue
his dream of becoming a graphic designer. He describes his job now
in the most delightful way -
it's like having a hobby with a deadline!
These real lives and individual stories brought the impact of
the Foundation on all these 164 students to life. It is what gives
it meaning, it is what made us all shed a tear. It's through these
personal connections that we are able to process what the big
Hakas in Honour
Not all the scholars at the 10th Anniversary evening were from
'Once Were Warriors' backgrounds. Many of them have loving and
supportive families who turned out in droves. It was also evident
that their peers admire and respect them, judging by the
spontaneous hakas that took place.
And when the Foundation's Chairwoman announced that the current
First Foundation GM, Nicki McDonald, was to step down from her post
in early 2009, a final, and lengthy, haka rang out. It built and
built in spine-tingling intensity as ever more students joined in
to show their appreciation of the life-changing opportunities she
has helped to create. The whole experience really left both Sarah
and me deeply affected.
What You Can Do
If any of you are in a position where you can talk to the First
Foundation about your organisation awarding a scholarship, or if
think you can become a mentor yourself, I suggest you give them a
call. Having a First Foundation scholar in your organisation will
most likely be a wonderful experience for all involved. And of
course, as we all know, as a mentor you are likely to benefit more
than your mentee!
Check out their website here.
© Professionelle Ltd 2008