Mahia te Aroha Student Conference

17 November 2022

At the start of this year, well-being leaders Lachlan Odlin (Year 12), Selena Gan (Year 13) and Radha Vallabh (Year 12) had a vision to create and host a conference in the Centennial Chapel for students from Canterbury to connect.

As we have always hoped, our chapel proved a perfect setting for people to come together, with the embracing arc of the seating and deep windows to look out and beyond.

student well-being leaders

Our student well-being leaders gained inspiration for their event from the work of Mahia te Aroha.

Mahia te Aroha was developed by members of the Christchurch Muslim community after the extraordinary response of support, compassion and mutual respect that followed the terror in Ōtautahi Christchurch on 15 March 2019. You can read more about them here.

Fortunately, Claire Newman and Tony Green from Mahia te Aroha were enthusiastic to support our students and shared their expertise so our students could bring their vision to fruition.


An early decision was made to co-construct the event alongside student well-being leaders from Hillmorton High School. For over three months, students from the two schools met and were guided through the planning process by Mahia te Aroha.

The group of students set a clear vision for the conference: they wanted to create a space where students could listen to inspiring speakers and have gritty conversations exploring the theme of tūrangawaewae/belonging: challenging conversations in a safe space.

Our well-being leaders were overwhelmed with the support they received from other schools. Close to 70 students from over 20 schools in Canterbury attended the event.

The support affirmed our students’ hunch that young people want to collaborate and that schools want to provide opportunities for their students to take action. On arrival, the students made warm connections and enjoyed the opportunity to discover people who shared a similar passion and purpose. 

students listening to mahia te aroha speakers

Compèred by Lachlan Odlin (Year 12) and Ngan Dang (Hillmorton High School), the hui commenced with three inspiring speakers sharing their perspectives on belonging, identity, and inclusivity. These included St Andrew’s student, Lily Champion-Smith (Year 12) with her powerful slam poetry, University of Canterbury student, Sadra Sultani – a young lady whose personal journey has taken her from land-locked Afghanistan to the deep cold of Antarctica, and newly-elected City Councillor, Tyla Harrison-Hunt.

student speaker at mahia te aroha

During the remainder of the afternoon, and with uniforms not required, students formed cross-school groups, reflecting on their personal stories and perspectives on how to create an inclusive and compassionate society.

This session was facilitated through an appreciative inquiry process led thoughtfully by Head of Guidance, Tom Matthews. Tom shared a rich personal experience as a young student in a school in Samoa, of being made to feel he belonged. I had the privilege of sitting back and watching the conversations unfold and was in awe of the insight, maturity, and compassion students bought to the room. There is no doubt that these students are passionate agents of change.

students debriefing and reflecting on conference speakers

Students reflected on the conference’s core themes by considering the actions that could be taken at a personal, group and societal level to promote inclusivity. These included themes such as developing self-belief, being upstanding and setting boundaries, learning about and celebrating difference and seeking out positive role models. 

We know that schools that effectively integrate well-being into their culture see young people as active agents in their lives. We know, too, that society faces challenges of individuals feeling disengaged. One of our key goals at St Andrew’s is to promote student agency concerning well-being and to develop deeper connections with the outside community.

As far as well-being is concerned, we know that our students' views, ideas and decisions need to be sought and valued, through having opportunities for leadership and decision making. And how wonderful if our young people are collaborating and sharing diverse experiences across schools and with outside agencies working in these spaces. I hope that this just the beginning of this relationship and it will continue in 2023.

student panel during mahia te aroha conference

Alongside their comments as the afternoon drew to an end, students were invited to say what work they wanted to be involved in. A clear wish came through for more opportunities like this, and to take part in “share kai” sessions: coming to learn about others through food. “Share kai” is another of Mahia te Aroha’s platforms for action and the plans are well underway for this to happen.

This quote from Alma Powell reminds me of the vital role student agency can play in building young people who will positively contribute their strengths to their world one day:

"When young people discover they can be agents of change, wonderful things happen. They start to serve in the neighbourhoods, learn about public issues, create innovative solutions to tough public challenges and eventually become the voters, community project builders, and leaders in our communities and nation." 

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