Our stories: Evie O'Brien

Written by Alice Peacock.

EviePacking her bags to move from Whakatane to Oxford to start her new job, Evie O’Brien found herself grappling with a bout of imposter syndrome.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would leave New Zealand, let alone move to Oxford. It's viewed as elite and for the world’s elite, so it felt like a bit of a dream.”

Evie, now the Executive Director of the Atlantic Institute: Rhode’s Trust, says it took “a bit of courage” to uproot the life that she loved, to move across the world by herself. Attempting to alleviate any homesickness, she packed artwork - pictures of her sacred ancestral mountains in the Bay of Plenty, and taonga, to hang on the walls of her new home.

But despite any feelings of unease, the reality was that Evie had been cherry-picked for the role. Her involvement with the Rhodes Institute began back when she was working at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, the Whakatane-based indigenous tertiary education provider, back in 2018 and was selected for the inaugural Atlantic Fellows Social Equity programme, based at the University of Melbourne.

The Atlantic Institute, and seven interconnected Atlantic programs, serve a global community of social justice leaders, focused on collaborating to address the world’s most pressing social, economic, racial and health inequalities.

As part of the Social Equity programme, Evie made a trip to Rhodes House in Oxford with the other fellows, where she spoke on behalf of the group. When she got back to New Zealand, she received an email asking if she was interested in the Institute’s Programme Director role - based in Oxford.

After a rigorous interview process, Evie was offered the position, and at the end of 2018 she moved to England to throw herself into the challenge. This year she has been appointed permanent Executive Director of the Atlantic Institute.

The Institute is housed with the Rhodes Trust. The Trust is the steward of the world’s oldest and arguably the most prestigious international scholarship, established through Cecil Rhodes’ will in 1903. While some aspects of the selection criteria Rhodes envisioned for the scholarship remain relevant, other elements were underpinned by imperialist and racist notions of civilisation. Some have argued that Cecil Rhodes was one of the architects of apartheid.

“How do you reconcile that, as a Māori or indigenous woman working in a place that honours this man who caused so much despair and suffering in Zimbabwe and South Africa?” Evie asks. “How you reconcile that is that you leave a place better than you found it. You’ve got to be part of the solution.”

“In addition to doing my job, it’s also about ideating and visioning what might be possible because I am here, because of the opportunities and doors and relationships that I have in Oxford and wider, across the world, that will benefit Māori,” she says.

Though Evie was born in the Whakatane region, she grew up mainly on Auckland’s North Shore with her two brothers and spent most of her career in Auckland too, at Unitec.

She fell into the education realm when she was young, having begun to teach at-risk young adults when she was about 21 and quickly realising that adult education was both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. This kick-started her passion for the education system, which she says is the “key driver for social, economic and cultural transformation”, not only in New Zealand, but across the world.

A project which had recently gotten off the ground, connected to the Institute, the Trust and the University, is one that Evie hopes will help to drive this change in years to come. She is part of a group in the early stages of establishing a Māori graduate student study tour to Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.

A group of 20 Māori honours students from New Zealand would fly over to England for 10 days to participate in a leadership bootcamp, tour the campuses and meet Sir John Hood, the New Zealander and ex-vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

“The whole place will be demystified,” Evie says. “It will be like saying: ‘You belong here’.”

From this, she hopes the number of Māori students applying to the universities, and for the Rhodes Scholarship, will increase. One day, she hopes it will turn into a global indigenous students' study tour.

The youngest of Evie's three children, who is 24, is planning on heading to England herself at the beginning of next year either to study or work. Evie is encouraging her to consider Oxford – “why not”, she says.

When Evie eventually leaves England, she hopes to leave a legacy of racial inclusion in higher education, as well as the native New Zealand plants she had sourced in the UK and planted in her Oxford garden.

“That’s my koha - my gift - to this land,” she says. “I know at some point I’m going to return home, but my tī kāuka and my ponga tree will be under the earth here.”

Visit Evie's LinkedIn profile.

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