Religious Studies student shines bright here and abroad

Aria Gardiner will celebrate her academic achievements by crossing the stage and speaking at Graduation this May.

Student Aria Gardiner smiling at the camera. She is standing in the Tim Beaglehole courtyard.
Aria Gardiner (she/her), Image Services.

When Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington graduand Aria Gardiner was asked to address her cohort at one of the Graduation ceremonies, she was delighted. “It’s definitely a dream come true,” Aria says. “It feels like a very full circle moment for me.”

In secondary school, Aria was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and it impacted every aspect of her life. “I had to leave school very abruptly. I went from being able to do everything, to not being able to do anything.”

Severely unwell for a few years, Aria was unable to complete NCEA to gain University Entrance. However after working part-time and volunteering at Kāpiti Youth Support and on the Kāpiti Coast District Youth Council, Aria knew she wanted to pursue further study, and applied for discretionary entrance to Te Herenga Waka.

In her first year, Aria’s courses covered a variety of different subjects, and from this she found a special passion for Religious Studies. “After two lessons I just knew I needed to make this into something.”

With the help of her Student Success Adviser, Aria added Religious Studies as her second major, alongside Development Studies. “I loved learning about how religion intersects with different parts of our world, some that we don’t even consider religious.

“The Religious Studies courses really engaged students in cool conversations,” Aria explains. “Our lecturer would come up with a relevant topic, and we’d just listen, learn, and kōrero about it. Everyone was able to share their own perspective. It challenged you to rethink about some of the existing ideas that you might have had.”

A highlight for Aria has been how studying has allowed her to gain new insights and perceptions. “We learned about a variety of religions, the history of religion, and how it’s relevant in our world today. The ability to engage with polarising ideas and beliefs was really eye-opening, and deeply important.

“Some of my ideas have completely changed over the course of my degree. Which I think is really special,” Aria says. “If Religious Studies has taught me one thing, it’s how to be a critical thinker, and how to be an open-minded critical thinker at that.”

It’s this thinking that inspired Aria to pursue opportunities overseas that aligned with her university studies. In 2023 Aria was shortlisted for the prestigious postgraduate Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford University in the UK. Founded in 1902, it is the oldest graduate scholarship in the world. “Being a part of that process was incredible, and getting that far was empowering.”

At the end of 2023, Aria was awarded a Prime Minister’s scholarship to travel India for six weeks. There she was able to spend her time immersed in the local culture and practices, and expand upon the knowledge learned at University.

“It was incredibly humbling and very beautiful,” Aria says. “There is so much colour and vibrancy everywhere. Everybody was so open and willing to share their stories and their culture. We miss so much of that community in the West.”

This year Aria has started her Master of Arts in Religious Studies, which was an easy decision to make. “I thought I would need a break at the end of my undergraduate degree,” Aria shares. “The end of year break is long enough. All of a sudden I was just like ‘I need to get back, I want to learn more!’

“I want to do my own research, and I love the Religious Studies teaching staff so much, that I just wanted to continue to be a part of that community.”

Learn more about studying Religious Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.