Sammy Hughes

Sammy Hughes is chair and founder of Nōna Te Ao, a charitable trust that works “to raise the socio-economic outcomes of rural Māori through mana-enhancing programmes”.

Sammy Hughes is all about whānau and community. He’s a teacher, an academic, a family man, a policy maker, a chief advisor and a leader. Regardless of what he is doing, though, his ‘why’ remains the same: making meaningful change for the people of Aotearoa.

Sammy began his career as a teacher, working in a number of schools across Te Ika-a-Māui. “I specialised in working in low-decile schools and with marginalised students, whether that was due to culture, disability, gender identity, you name it – and that was where my heart was and will always be.” 

Sammy is currently chair and founder of Nōna Te Ao, a charitable trust that works “to raise the socio-economic outcomes of rural Māori through mana-enhancing programmes”. It’s a far cry from the “regular career” he envisaged – teach for a decade, become a principal, then retire. “Everything that has come has been a blessing and I still pinch myself with where I am at.”

His teaching and his background in education led Sammy to return to the University of Auckland, where he discovered a passion for policy and became the Māori Academic Advisor for the University’s Business School. “I also absolutely love policy. I have no idea why, but it still fascinates me to this day the power a single word can have in enacting change.” 

At the University of Auckland, Sammy used his time to enact a lot of change. He established the Māori and Pacific stream within the Business School and presented work at the World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference on Education. He was involved in the US Embassy’s Young Pacific Leaders programme, became a Global Atlantic Fellow for Social Equity with the Atlantic Institute, founded Nōna Te Ao and became Chief Advisor for the development of Te Mātaiaho – Aotearoa New Zealand’s refreshed curriculum.

In the middle of all of those remarkable achievements, Sammy made the decision to take all that he’d learned back to the classroom, taking up a deputy principal position at Tolaga Bay Area School. This was a formative time for Sammy. “To this day it is the place that made me the most happy and I got to spend every day with one of the greatest minds, not only in education but in general, with our principal Nori Parata.”

Through it all, he remained guided by the values instilled in him by his whānau and the community that helped raise him. “Understanding your priorities and your ‘why’ is critical. Your ‘why’ may change over time as your priorities change and you need to make decisions about your career based on these. My life has changed numerous times due to outside factors, so my priorities have changed and over time my ‘why’ hasn’t changed.”

Because of this, Sammy still gains immense gratification from the work that he does every day. “I get to help other people to live their dreams that they don’t even know they have,” he says. “There is nothing quite like being able to watch someone grow into a leader and I am blessed to be able to be a part of others’ life journeys.” 

Despite all his success, Sammy has one more ambitious goal he would like to achieve in the future: “I want to round off my education by completing my doctorate. I was the first in my whānau to go past a degree level and I want to be able to complete my journey by adding Dr to my name.” Whatever the future holds, he says he will never stop pinching himself. 

“I have been around the world because of education and I wish I could tell young me that this is what was going to be in store for them. They definitely wouldn’t believe me.”