‘Trailblazer’, ‘confident’ and ‘mana wahine’ are a few words that have been used to describe Waikato Students’ Union (WSU) President Kyla Campbell-Kamariera.
Of Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri and Taranaki Tūturu descent, the Northland local stepped into the presidency role at the University of Waikato at the start of 2020, while also beginning a Master of Māori and Indigenous Studies.
“It was never in my plan to run for President,” she says. “But I thought it was a role I could fall into if the students voted. It was a gamble, especially when you think about the popularity that surrounds elections.”
After weeks of campaigning back in 2019, the news of Campbell-Kamariera’s presidency came at a significant time when Māori across the nation were rallying in the fight for Ihumātao.
“I got the call when I was at Ihumātao, and I knew I would have a lot of pressure on my shoulders, being Māori, wahine and President,” she says.
“Then I realised those aspects would actually be a special part of my role, given where I was at the time and the fight we were fighting. It reinforced the past experiences I had been through, which have always brought me back to Te Ao Māori.”
Now, Campbell-Kamariera has had to fight a different battle, leading the student body through what might be the most unprecedented time in tertiary history.
“When the Prime Minister announced in March that the country would be moving into lockdown, I had no clue what that would mean for me and my mahi. But once I, and the organisation, got into the flow of things, we were still able to offer students the same support, but remotely.”
Campbell-Kamariera says the WSU developed four Facebook forums to keep students connected and engaged during Alert Level 4. These were the Virtual Village Green, WSU Lockdown Fun, WSU Clubs and Societies, and WSU Are you Okay?.
Each forum provided the opportunity for students to not only engage with their peers and keep busy during Alert Level 4, but to also seek additional help and support if they were struggling.
“This has enabled us to be in direct contact with students. Now, more than 800 students and counting have joined the Virtual Village Green page,” says Campbell-Kamariera.
“Like everyone across the country, we're still finding our way through the new Covid-19 landscape, but as President, I couldn't be happier with what the organisation has achieved and will continue to achieve.”
As part of the research focus for her masters, Campbell-Kamariera is looking into Māori student politics, which she says goes hand-in-hand with what she has studied previously.
She says young Māori are passionate about the issues of today, and has seen a resurgence of mātauranga Māori and graduate recognition in mainstream spaces.
“We’re passionate about the environment, politics and all things Indigenous and we want to protect the values that come with those areas. There are so many Māori students doing different things in different spaces and this deserves to be highlighted.”
When it comes to leadership, Campbell-Kamariera says she draws on inspiration from both her whānau and those who came before her.
You could say she walks in the footsteps of other strong Northland women, like Dame Whina Cooper, Dame Mira Szászy and Merimeri Penfold – women who she looks up to. But she says it’s those closest to home that have really inspired and guided her on her journey.
“I’m from a rural village so I was always around people older than me, like my aunties, uncles and kaumātua. I looked up to them for their mātauranga, for the history they knew and for the knowledge they had of our whakapapa.”
For now, Campbell-Kamariera will see out the rest of the year as WSU President before making her next move. But there’s certainly no doubt in her mind about what she wants to be in the future.
“I want to be Vice-Chancellor of the University someday. It’s a huge feat, but I’ll work hard to get there.”