11 November 2008

First Foundation: Cheers and Tears

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

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 great things.

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 tertiary education.

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!

Changing Lives

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 stories.

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 picture means.

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

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