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‘What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger’

Kuini Vidal has faced more than her fair share of challenges throughout her life. But with sheer determination and resilience, and a helping hand from her First Foundation whanau, she has risen above all the obstacles in her path.

After starting a First Foundation Scholarship in 2014, the 20-year-old is set to complete her Bachelor of Commerce in Economics and Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a History minor, at Victoria University of Wellington.

FF Scholar Kuini Vidal

Kuini always knew she wanted to go to university – but the only way to do that would be to get a scholarship.  

“I had known for a long time my whānau didn’t have the financial capacity to support me into university, and therefore I would need to get a comprehensive scholarship, like the one the First Foundation provides, in order to get a tertiary education,” she says. 

“Contributing to economic reform, which leads to the alleviation of poverty in Aotearoa, has always been my dream. In order to do that, I knew I would need a degree.”

After starting the First Foundation programme in 2014, the 20-year-old is set to complete her Bachelor of Commerce in Economics and Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a History minor, at Victoria University in Wellington. 

For Kuini, who is of New Zealand and Samoan descent, working and supporting her whānau financially was necessary when she left school. That’s why First Foundation’s three pillars of support – financial assistance, paid work experience and mentoring – made its scholarship programme stand out to her. 

“No one in my family had finished university yet, making the work experience and mentor components of the scholarship essential for me to be able to go to and succeed at university.”   

Growing up fast

Kuini’s father raised her and her older sister Julie – also a First Foundation scholar – in a state house in Khandallah.  

But on her 18th birthday, during her first year of university, Kuini’s world changed forever when her father died suddenly.  

“Because our home was a state house and Dad’s name was the only one on our lease, Housing New Zealand gave Julie and me 21 days to be out of the only place we had ever called home,” she says. 

“We were facing homelessness, having to organise the funeral, trying to grieve, and for the first time in my entire life, my education could not be my first priority.

Still a teenager, Kuini had to grow up fast.  

“I went from living a life where Dad did everything for me so I could focus completely on my education, to being independent and self-reliant. 

“I had to keep my aspirations close, focus on the things I wanted to achieve and on how passionate I am about the changes I want to make. And I had to start accepting help from people, something which I have always found really difficult.  

“Now I think what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but you have to let it.”  

Kuini Vidal with her family

Kuini Vidal with her family

Finding support

Fortunately, Kuini had a support network in place, particularly from the mana wāhine in her life, her sister and mother, who are also her biggest inspirations.  

“Mum is a cleaner, and an incredible, hardworking woman, who has experienced so much hardship and adversity as a low-income earning, woman-of-colour whose second language is English. She is so smart and strong. I’m immensely proud of her and I cannot wait until I finish my studies to give her the financially comfortable life she deserves.”  

Big sister Julie taught Kuini almost everything she knows – how to read, write, count, be kind, and do what is right.  

“Social activism has always been a passion of hers – something she has passed on to me.

“Julie has so much potential and compassion, and I am certain she is going to do amazing, revolutionary things in Aotearoa.” 

Through the First Foundation programme, Kuini also had support from her mentor, Esther Summerhays, who met with her regularly to help guide her through the transition to university and into the workplace. 

Kuini with her First Foundation mentor, Esther Summerhays.=

Kuini with her First Foundation mentor, Esther Summerhays

Making a difference

Kuini’s biggest motivation to succeed in life is the experience of growing up in a sole-parent, benefit-dependent household.  

“Every aspect of my life depended on government policy. The state decided our household income through benefit rates, owned our home, and set our rent price.

“I don’t think parents in a country as wealthy and resourceful as Aotearoa should have to make the sacrifices my dad did to make ends meet – and I don’t think kids are set up for good outcomes when they grow up in deprivation.

The Government has a responsibility to address that and that’s why I want to make a difference through reforming how we prioritise things when we set policy.”   

Heading for success

During her scholarship, Kuini did work experience at Kiwi Wealth and the organisation has chosen to keep her on until she finishes her conjoint degree.  

When she finishes university, Kuini wants to work in the public sector as a policy analyst, where her eventual goal is to reform economic policy at Treasury or The Reserve Bank. 

“I’m also particularly interested in working on welfare policy, indigenous issues, and housing.”  

Providing for her whānau is a priority for Kuini, who says she wants to buy her mum a house and ensure her nephews and niece get a good education so they can achieve their dreams and goals.

“Through the aspirations I have for my work, I want to help create an Aotearoa which provides everyone, particularly Māori, Pasifika and impoverished communities with a fair go at life and equal opportunities.”