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Cultural empathy enriches us

One of New Zealand’s greatest assets is our rich and vibrant array of cultures, and at First Foundation, we’re pleased to celebrate the beauty of this diversity. We treasure learning how we can better support and respect the many backgrounds that our scholars and their communities bring. Cultural empathy is vital.

Pio Terei has worked extensively in promoting cultural awareness and offers wise guidance to First Foundation on cultural empathy. He says,  “We live in the best country in the world, but sometimes we forget it.”

Cultural empathy is about appreciating and respecting different cultural perspectives, practices, and experiences. It means engaging, learning, and keeping an open mind. The rewards are abundant.

I have been amazed at the resilience and determination of everyone involved in First Foundation. They’ve stayed focused on our goal of giving talented young Kiwis a hand up to access higher education.

Building stronger connections across cultures can help us see the world through new eyes. It brings resilience and innovation. We’ll all benefit from more compassionate and inclusive communities.

Start right

Starting relationships the right way is vital in any culture. This means valuing people for who they are from the beginning. Pio says whakapapa and family links are an important part of self-identity for Māori. For many Pacific people, a home village may have similar importance. It’s worth giving people a chance to include these things as part of introductions. And show an interest! It’s common to find you have links you may not have expected.

Pio has a personal vow to try and enhance any space he enters, and this means having empathy for its people. In his workshops, he begins with a mihi and welcome.

As a mentor or employer, first meetings are crucial in helping people feel welcomed. Our scholars can sometimes feel like outsiders in the academic or professional world. This is more common if they’re the first in their family to attend university or haven’t grown up with role models who work in professional settings.

Our scholarship partners are working hard to create a welcoming environment. As an example, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare welcomed two scholars at the same time into intern roles. As well as developing a comprehensive onboarding programme, they welcomed the families of their scholars.  Tevita Bloomfield and Helen Thai said this made a huge difference – they appreciated the recognition of their families

Nurture identity

Ashley Vaotuua, 2018 Spark scholar, says, “Lack of representation forces one to feel as though certain spaces are not meant for them, even when those are the spaces they are needed most.”

But she says it’s vital people remain proud of their identity. “If you’re a Māori or Pacific woman reading this — you descend from a long line of revolutionary, strong, brave women who broke barriers for you to be present in this very moment.” 

Michelle Elia-Siloata, 2007 Bell Gully Scholar agrees. Michelle’s parents immigrated from Samoa and the Cook Islands in the early 1970s. Her ancestors fought for social justice, challenged perspectives, and sacrificed for the future.

“Wherever I go, I’m always representing my culture and all of those who came before me.”


“Wherever I go, I’m always representing my culture and all of those who came before me. I’m not just a product of my parents, but I’m also a product of all the events that came before them and the different villages that raised me and the decisions I made.”

Empathy invites opportunity

Previous First Foundation chair and repeat mentor Rich Easton says learning about his mentees cultures has been of the most enjoyable parts of his role. “I’ve learnt as much from Joel, Tau, Robert, Tama, and Lachlan as I’ve been able to give. Mentoring offers you a whole new perspective on the world and can grow into long-term friendships, connections to different communities, and self-learning.” 

“It’s great to have conversations that broaden your thinking, and working with the scholars has helped me understand more,” says Rich.

Even if you don’t know anything about someone else’s culture, curiosity, respect, and empathy can help you forge a bond. Connecting can be as simple as meeting over a meal.

Sharing food and the stories behind it is often a literal way of consuming culture and connecting with communities. Food also has the power to influence and transcend all boundaries because of how easily it can bring people from different backgrounds together.

This was the inspiration for our scholar-led  ‘Out of the Whānau Frying pan’ events and recipe books

We’re the land’s people

Aotearoa has a vivid tapestry of cultures, but Pio points out some special relationships. Māori are the mana whenua of New Zealand – the land’s people. In turn, they look to the Pacific as their ‘tuakana’ – elder siblings. This relationship of mutual care and respect is fundamental.

According to Pio, the Treaty of Waitangi means all Kiwis – even those descended from elsewhere— can benefit from the care and protection of this land, which is so full of wairua. Wairua is life principle, life force, vital or essence —it’s the energy flowing in, out, and around the whenua, providing guardianship to all who make our home here.

Enriching our cultural empathy is an opportunity to grow how we see the world, each other, and ourselves. By welcoming other cultures, we also invite a broader guardianship for our individuality and shared future.