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The road to Harvard: Rotorua’s Koan Hemana on nerves, cultural identity and goals

Natasha Hill

From Rotorua to Harvard: Q&A with scholar set to chase his dreams in the US

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Te Rito cadet journalist Natasha Hill catches up with Rotorua teen Koan Hemana for a Q & A on the eve of his departure to US ivy league university Harvard. The former Rotorua Boys’ High School student (19) last year won a scholarship through the Te Ara a Kupe Beaton fund to help him apply to Harvard University. He will study towards a Bachelor of Science and says it is his dream to study medicine, become a skilled surgeon and ultimately give back to communities in New Zealand.

Q. How do you feel about leaving the country to start your first semester at Harvard? Are you nervous about this big move?

A. It’s been eight months since I’ve known of my acceptance. Eagerly, I’ve been waiting ever since, but now that I near closer and closer to D-day, I can’t help but be unbearably nervous.

Leaving for Harvard means leaving friends and family behind. How do you feel about this, and how have you prepared for being away from them?

Going to any university, at least for my friends, means leaving the comfort of your hometown, family, and friends. Everyone after high school experiences the phenomenon of never seeing a friend again. It helps me to think that I’m not alone in that regard. Of course, Harvard is much further away, but I believe the same principle applies. I’ll still be home 25 weeks of the year and will always hold my family and friends close.

What are your expectations of the new environment, including campus and university life in general?

The architecture is very grand, the professors are top-of-the-line, and my fellow peers are geniuses in their own right. I hope I am not out of place. I expect the environment to be very challenging but conducive to success. The residential life of the college means a close community. I think it will be a lot of fun.

Since receiving the acceptance into Harvard, can you describe any significant changes in your life or perspective?

My principles and values have remained the same. I have noticed some changes in public perception. People expect me to act and be a certain way. There’s a little added pressure, but it’s an honour either way. My perspective hasn’t changed much; I’ve always dreamed of improving people’s lives. Now that I’m in Harvard, I guess I have the opportunity to fulfil my dream on a larger scale.

Koan Hemana with his parents Kelly Hemana and Clinton Hemara. Photo / Supplied

How have you been preparing yourself mentally and emotionally as the leaving date draws nearer?

I’ve certainly been counting my blessings and spending whatever available time I have with friends and family. I believe I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. However, I think part of preparing is coming to terms with the fact that I will have unavoidable days of mental fatigue and emotional hardship, but that’s okay and healthy.

Are you looking forward to the food there? What foods are you going to have once you touch down?

Of all the great things Harvard is known for, food is apparently not one of them. I also don’t look forward to the price of food off-campus. I will make good use of my time with my parents, getting all my favourites cooked — especially Mum’s Beef Wellington. I look forward to trying Boston seafood chowder and lobster.

How will you incorporate or showcase your cultural knowledge and heritage into your studies?

I will definitely maintain my cultural identity by sharing Māori knowledge with my class. I plan to start a ki o rahi team and maybe even teach them a haka.

What are some of the cultural differences you have learned while preparing to leave for Harvard? How are you planning to adapt and embrace those differences?

I can say that American teenagers are very different from Kiwi teenagers. Nearly all of them don’t understand my lingo, but at the same time, they’re fascinated by my accent. I can adapt to different types of language and plan to teach them mine.

If you could meet one famous person in the US, who would it be and why?

I would have to say Elon Musk is one famous person I’d love to meet. I hope that some of his genius could rub off on me, and I would ask him all sorts of questions about the future of the human race as he sees it.

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to other students wanting to apply to universities overseas such as Harvard?

Fundamentally, you must do well in school, so try to get the best grades possible. Outside of that requirement, I’d urge other students to research their prospective universities well.

The US college admissions process is very subjective. Just because you were accepted into Harvard doesn’t mean you can be accepted anywhere — certain colleges like certain qualities, extracurriculars, etc. Researching the universities is useful because you can discover what each institution looks for in a candidate and tailor your application to fit that mould.

Hero image: Koan Hemana, who has won a scholarship to study at Harvard University, was deputy head boy at Rotorua Boys' High School last year. Photo / Supplied

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