Rhodes Scholar KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i – standing on the shoulders of others

University of Auckland Faculty of Arts student KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i is the first Pacific woman to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.

KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i: "Ultimately the scholarship is for the Pacific."

KDee is only the fourth person of Pacific descent to receive the prestigious honour and says she's very aware of standing on the shoulders of others.

“It wouldn’t be possible without the countless Pacific women who have broken down barriers, dismantled stereotypes and paved the way for other Pacific women like me. There are countless Pacific woman disrupting systems all throughout Aotearoa who deserve far more recognition and applause than they currently receive. This is for them too.”

She is currently completing a BA Hons in Pacific Studies, with courses in Development Studies. Her lecturer in undergraduate history and Honours dissertation supervisor, the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Pacific) Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa, was himself the first person of Pacific Island descent to become a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford.

“KDee is a truly remarkable young scholar, a person who has shown a deep commitment not only to her studies, but to her fellow students and her communities," he says. "She thoroughly deserves this opportunity, which will see one of our most talented emerging young Pacific leaders placed where she can continue to grow and make even more of a difference.”

At Oxford next year, KDee intends to undertake a three-year DPhil (the Oxford equivalent of a PhD) in International Development, focusing on the Pacific region. “Oxford is a place that has a profound impact on the Pacific region, yet there is a real absence of Pacific voices and Pacific research,” she says.

“I hope to be able to centralise the Pacific in all that I do – representing and advocating for the Pacific we love. I intend to compile an oral history source base that discusses the ways in which non-Pacific countries have implemented development policies in the Pacific and how Pacific nations and people feel about these interactions to show what self-determined Pacific development looks like.”

She says she feels “overwhelmed” to receive the scholarship, making special mention of her grandfather, respected Samoan physician Papali’i Dr Semisi Ma’ia’i, who died earlier this month.

“He was an early and devoted Pacific pioneer who loved and served the Pacific wholeheartedly. I’m pleased to have done this for him; standing on his shoulders and continuing a life of service to the Pacific in his honour."

Ultimately, she says,  the scholarship is for the Pacific. "Without the love and support that I’ve received from my family and broader Pacific community, it wouldn’t have been possible. It’s something that I will never forget and will spend the rest of my life repaying through service.”

KDee’s path to academic success was not always smooth. She left West Auckland’s Avondale College halfway through Year 12 for family reasons, and after working for two years went back to complete a University New Start programme before beginning her Bachelor of Arts at Auckland aged 20.

The 2019 Rhodes Scholars elect with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy: Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, KDee Aimiti Ma’ia’i and Oliver Pooke.

While studying herself, she was also working to help others. Through Pillars, a charitable organisation that partners children whose parents are incarcerated with community mentors, she connected with a 15-year-old girl from Papakura who hadn’t attended school for a few years.

“I enrolled her in Te Kura Correspondence School and she has since caught up on the two and a half years of missed content and is now working at a year above her age group and has plans to re-join mainstream school for her final year of high school,” she says.

Her work with Pillars has extended to include proposing and creating an academic programme for all the mentees, aimed at forming a supportive community to help more than 80 students achieve the highest possible qualifications at NCEA level.

She has continued similar work with Māori and Pacific students at the University, acting as a Tuākana mentor, a graduate teaching assistant and a New Start student support facilitator. KDee was also a recipient of one of the inaugural John McCall MacBain Kupe Leadership Scholarships.

She finds it hard to believe how far she’s come.

“If you had told me then that I would be here, I would have laughed. Too often young Pacific people are tarnished by negative and untrue stereotypes that are entrenched within most systems in New Zealand. This creates barriers for Pacific people from doing the things they are passionate about, and talented in.”

She hopes becoming a Rhodes Scholar will encourage other young Pacific people to continue to push against and overcome these barriers, with a focus on succeeding as a group.

“We can’t be held down by systems that weren’t intended for us to thrive in. We can do anything we set our minds to, and nothing is off limits. I’m really passionate about ensuring that young Pacific people know this and believe in themselves, their families and where they have come from so that we can recreate the system into one that fosters our collective success.”

Alongside Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa, KDee-Aimiti Ma’ia’i  joins previous Pacific Rhodes Scholarship recipients, University of Auckland alumni Alex Fala, CEO of retail management software company Vend, and Marco de Jong, who is currently studying for a DPhil in History at Oxford.

Media contact

Julianne Evans | Media adviser
Mob: 027 562 5868
Email: julianne.evans@auckland.ac.nz