There wasn’t a dry eye in the Music Auditorium at the University of Auckland’s Epsom Campus earlier this month, as 16 young people graduated from the Campus Connections Aotearoa programme, a 12-week youth mentoring scheme for young people enrolled in alternative education in West Auckland.

The graduation event was unique because the young people’s mentors, who are all  students at the University of Auckland, were all present to personally support their mentees and hand them their certificates and ceremonial lei.

Many of the youth graduates’ whānau also turned up at the event. At the end of the graduation, people had an opportunity to share their thoughts about the programme. One of the mentee’s mothers shared a few heartfelt words about her son:

“He was well behind, and struggling. Thank you guys, you made such a difference. Thank you [son], good luck on your way, and everyone here who has done [the programme].”

Campus Connections Aotearoa

Launched in July 2017, Campus Connections Aotearoa provides a wrap-around service that supports young people who are grappling with complex life challenges in a safe, fully supervised, and welcoming environment.

The programme is being run by a team led by Drs Pat Bullen and Kelsey Deane who specialise in youth development and mentoring at the University of Auckland. The programme has received generous funding from the Ministry of Youth Development, the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation and the Fletcher Trust to develop, deliver and evaluate a model of the programme designed for the Aotearoa context.

Through Campus Connections Aotearoa each young person receives 48 hours of mentoring over a 12-week period from student mentors and counsellors. The therapeutic programme combines intensive one-to-one mentoring with group-based prosocial activities. On-site counselling is also available for the young people to access as and when they need it. The Campus Connections Aotearoa team works with their partners in the alternative education sector to link the young people with other developmental opportunities that fit with their interests and needs.

Dr Deane explains, “Providing effective holistic support for young people who face a lot of challenges in their lives requires a partnership approach. We’ve been very blessed to have the interest and support of many amazing partners in this journey and working collaboratively allows us to amplify the impact of the work we do to make a difference in the community and in the lives of our students.”

What the student mentors said

During the graduation ceremony several mentors also spoke about the impact that their youth mentees had on their lives. One of the mentors held back tears as she spoke to her mentee: “You’ve made this one of the most important experiences of my life.”

Another student mentor said, “It’s a huge privilege for me to be able to take part in the programme and to see a lot of the young people in our whānau grow so much over the past 12 weeks… You [the mentees] all worked so hard and you’ve come so far. Your journey is still going and you are destined for really great things.”

A third caringly looked her mentee in the eye, thanked her mentee and said, “You have such a character and you have a humorous front for everybody, but behind it all you have so much to give, so much to offer this world. I encourage that you let down your guard. The world is your oyster, eat the oyster!” she said, sparking off welcome laughter in the room.

”Thank you for allowing me to be part of your life these past 12 weeks and I hope you remember me as I will remember you.”

Hard work and success

Taff Wikaira from the Ministry of Youth Development also congratulated all the young graduates of the programme and encouraged them to use the opportunity to think about their future possibilities saying:

“You’re not here not because you just turned up. You turned up and you participated and you worked hard and you crossed the floor to receive that tohu that acknowledges the hard work that you’ve put in this year…

“You should be proud of yourself graduating in a place like this [university]… walking around the campus, seeing students engaged in their learning. Open your eyes to what could be possible. Now it’s up to you to fully realise that in your journey wherever that may be – potentially to a place like this.”

The message that got the loudest applause came from the smallest boy in the cohort. He wore a large baseball cap and barely took his eyes off the floor, but near the end mustered the courage to grab the mic and say these words whilst choking back tears:

“I want to say thanks to [mentor] for being there for me. Yusss!”

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