Giving back to the village

Graduand Nikita Woolnough will address the crowd at this week’s Graduation.

Nikita Woolnough stands facing the camera at the Te Aro campus

When Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington graduand Nikita Woolnough addresses the crowd at this week’s Graduation, she will remind her peers that it doesn’t just take a village to raise a child—students and adults have villages too.

Nikita grew up in a single-parent household in Ellerslie, Auckland and has always known she wanted to attend Te Herenga Waka. When Nikita visited the University as part of an Open Day, it was Wellington city and the Te Aro campus that drew her in. “I have always been a creative kind of person and Wellington has always had that reputation for being such a funky city.”

“The Architecture and Design Innovation campus seemed like such a hub for creative people. Everybody was dressed cool, and the walls were covered in students’ work—it felt like I was immersed in a gallery.”

Nikita is set to graduate this week with a Bachelor of Design Innovation, majoring in Social Innovation, after three years of studying at the Te Wāhanga—Waihanga-Hoahoa—Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation.

Her first year was all about finding her feet in a new city and getting to know people. In her second and third years she was able to narrow down the kind of design she was passionate about. “The main aspect of the Social Innovation major was identifying social and environmental problems and designing solutions using human-centred and planet-centred toolkits.”

A standout assignment for Nikita was working with Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to facilitate conversations around Matariki and its new status as a public holiday. She designed an experience that led families around Wellington to learn about each star in Matariki. The final star took them to visit the Manawatia a Matariki—Celebrate Our New Year exhibition at Te Papa.

“Our tamariki are our future and hold a responsibility to carry the stories of Matariki through future generations, so I wanted to create something that would engage them in learning about each star and why we celebrate Matariki.”

Nikita praises the collaborative environment of the School of Design Innovation. “I got to know my cohort really well, and we were able to bounce ideas off of each other.”

“I developed such a good relationship with my peers and lecturers that I think really helped. Having that range of perspectives throughout my degree is really important in design.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, she says. Growing up in a single-parent household came with its own challenges, and at one point she had to decide between taking care of the house she grew up in and attending university.

“We had a leaky house, and mum had to put in all this money for our home to get fixed. And I wanted her to prioritise that,” Nikita says. “It just seemed so impractical for me to move cities and come down to Wellington.”

In her final year of high school, Nikita was the recipient of a scholarship from Keystone Trust. The scholarship allowed Nikita to focus on her studies, and also provided her with work experience, networking opportunities, and mentorship. “University definitely wasn’t on the cards without Keystone.”

“I was able to gain industry experience and go to different sites in Auckland and Wellington, and talk to people in the industry.” Nikita explains. “I’m a ‘learn through doing’ person, so those experiences definitely helped me at uni.”

Despite the struggles, she never let herself be too bogged down by the world around her. “There was never really a time where I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Once I was given the opportunity to go to university, I just had my mind so set on it.” Nikita says. “I knew I had a support system backing me, and I couldn’t let the team down.”

The School of Design Innovation allowed Nikita to recognise her interest in using design to enact change. “Design is so much more than just having things look pretty, it’s more, how can we use design to actually make a difference in our community.”

Nikita’s passion for community-centred design caught the attention of her teachers, and she will be giving the closing address at her graduation ceremony.

“It really does take a village. Even though I’m technically an adult now, I wouldn’t be here without my mum, Keystone, and my lecturers.” Nikita says. “I’m a very motivated person, but having that support has helped me to not just achieve, but excel.”

As Nikita prepares for graduate life, she’s committed to using design to better the community. “I’m the first in my family to go to University, and I’m headed into full-time work. I had a village of people helping me, and I want to do the same for others.”

Interested in studying design at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington? Find out more about our Bachelor of Design Innovation—BDI degree..