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Source: University of Waikato

“Being recognised as a Pacific Island excellence student was one of the best feelings in the world,” says former Mount Maunganui College head girl, Ella Carlsen.

Ella received a University of Waikato Pacific Excellence Scholarship to study a Bachelor of Health, Sport and Human Performance at the Tauranga Campus this year. She says the acknowledgment of her contribution to the school’s Pacific student community meant just as much as the financial reward.

“I felt that gaining the scholarship was bigger than me,” she says. “It’s for my Samoan ancestors who didn’t have the same opportunities as me to get a higher education.”

The Pacific Excellence Scholarship, valued at $10,000, is awarded on the basis of meritorious achievement and connection to the Pacific community.

Ella’s role, as the school’s third ever head girl of Pacific Island descent, gave her the opportunity to co-found the first ever Pasifika Malo Uma group at Mount Maunganui College. In two years, the group has become a safe place for both Pacific and non-Pacific students to come together, share and celebrate their culture.

Alongside her cultural contribution, the talented sportswoman also represented Mount College in netball and volleyball and coached and managed several netball, basketball and volleyball teams. Devoting time to her community is something that Ella relishes. Every week she returns to her old school grounds to coach the junior A boys volleyball team and she still helps out with the Malo Uma group.

“It’s important for me to be involved in things as much as I can. You can never get the most out of a situation if you are just watching from the sidelines,” she says.

An innate desire to help young people and instil confidence in them through sport is what influenced Ella’s decision to embark on her chosen study path.

“My PE teacher at college explained how much more there is to being ‘just a PE teacher’. You are a teacher, coach, role model, counsellor, support network all rolled into one. Having a career where I get to help youth every day is the right choice for me.”

More than halfway through her first year, Ella is enjoying the sports science degree programme jointly delivered in Tauranga by the University of Waikato and Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology. Being confident with her choice of university was important since she plans to continue straight into a Graduate Diploma of Secondary Teaching once she’s completed her current degree.

“Health, Sport and Human Performance students have access to Toi Ohomai’s library, pool and gym as well as all the expertise and great facilities at the University’s city campus. We really get the best of both worlds. Plus, with Waikato’s excellent reputation in teaching, I’m well-placed for my Graduate Diploma studies.”

And, despite undertaking her first year of tertiary study in these ‘unprecedented’ times, the 19-year-old has been able to maintain good grades. She puts that down to hard work and the support she’s received from family, university staff and her classmates.

“Although we had very little time in the classroom before all the craziness kicked in, I was able to build friendships that sustained me through lockdown,” says Ella. “That made a huge difference when we moved online. We helped each other by studying for tests via FaceTime and motivated each other to complete assignments before the due dates.”

Staying in the Bay also means Ella is able to save money by living at home and she can fit in her sports commitments around her studies. She plays volleyball for the Western Bay of Plenty Phoenix women’s club team and still manages to find time to squeeze in trips to the beach after her university classes.

“I’m really happy to be studying at home in Tauranga. It’s the perfect healthy work/life/study balance for me,” she says.

With applications for the Pacific Excellence Scholarship due to close on 31 August, Ella urges eligible students to apply.

“Go for it!” she says. “Spend the weekend getting your application in if that’s what it takes. Don’t sit on the sidelines. I viewed the application process as ‘you don’t know till you ask’ or, in this case, apply. Look where it got me!”