Jesse Tuhaka is a daughter, a musician, a hard worker, a churchgoer and a student. But on the cusp of adulthood, she’s worried she doesn’t yet know who she is as an individual.
“1, 2, 3.” Jesse Tuhaka’s singing teacher counts her in. The 18-year-old’s voice is strong and clear. Music isn’t just a passion. It sets the rhythm of her life.
The middle of five children, she grew up playing music with her siblings and parents, who met performing at the New Zealand Rockquest as teenagers. It’s still how they spend their evenings.
They also take to the stage together at kapa haka festivals and at church - Jesse sings with the worship group during the week as well as at Sunday services. As her dad, a pastor, says “God is not just one day a week”.
In her free time, she works at McDonald’s, plays netball and volleyball, helps her mates with their homework and is a student leader at Ormiston Senior College in south-east Auckland.
Jesse’s softly spoken, well-mannered and thoughtful. She likes “good etiquette,” she says. “That’s something that’s been drilled into me from my parents.”
Family is her focal point - in everything she says, she comes back to them.
Her friends would describe her as sarcastic, she says. She reckons she gets that from her mum. From her dad, she’s inherited her love of te reo. He used to teach it, and now she wants to learn the language fluently.
Next year, she’ll take a full immersion Māori course at a wānanga (a tertiary institution structured around te ao Māori, the Māori worldview). After that, she hopes to study music and teaching at university and eventually get a master’s degree in education.
Once she’s got a degree, she wants to work as a classroom teacher before rising through the ranks in the profession to become a principal, and ultimately, an advisor at the Ministry of Education.
A daughter, a musician, a hard worker, a churchgoer, a student, a future teacher - Jesse is many things to many people. But on the cusp of adulthood, she’s worried she doesn’t yet know who she is.
She’s weeks away from finishing Year 13. Among the excitement and anticipation is a niggling nervousness.
“I’m scared of falling out of the routine of school,” she says.
I’ve been here so long, that’s what I’m used to and I’m scared if I leave and have a lot of freedom then I’m not going to want to do what I thought I did.
“I’m also scared of being an individual because a lot of what I do is guided by my parents and when you’re an adult you're pushed into the real world by yourself.”
Jesse says juggling all of her responsibilities is a lot of pressure for someone so young.
“My parents expect a lot from me, my job expects a lot from me, school expects a lot from me. I have to work to find how to balance that so I don’t, you know, explode or something,” she says.
Jesse’s concerns about being being independent are echoed by many of her peers.
She is among 84 head students from 48 schools across Auckland Stuff has surveyed as part of Polite Rebellion, an project examining the issues important to the city’s new breed of leaders. As the teens leave school, they’ve spoken of their hopes and concerns for Auckland, the city they’ve come of age in.
Pakuranga College head student Ininosa Obasuyi sums up the feeling among students with his list of concerns about leaving school: “Not making the medicine programme, student loan, leaving home.”
A fear of failure, financial worries and uncertainty about leaving behind the support structures of school and family all loom large.
University of Auckland professor of sociology Alan France says being anxious about leaving home and being independent is normal, but today’s teenagers face some unique challenges compared to generations that have come before them.
In Auckland - and globally - young people are having to delay moving out of their family home as living costs soar. And gone are the days of walking out of the lecture hall and into a decent paying job, he says.
“The evidence shows you can take five, [even] 10 years to get into the areas you want to get into.”
A 2016 study of university graduates’ lives two years after graduation found that while 81 per cent were employed - and another 16 per cent were travelling, pursuing higher study or caregiving - more than a third said they were not satisfied with their current work and nearly 30 per cent said their knowledge and skills weren’t being well used.
“There’s a lot of pressure on our young people today to make the grade. If they don’t make the grade they definitely will be feeling as though they’ve failed and struggling,” France says.
There’s always “a bit of silent judgement” when someone says they don't know what to do after school, Rutherford College head girl Jane Lee says. There are expectations to “just know”, she says, which puts “a lot of pressure” on young people.
Anna Cusack is president of Auckland University Students' Association (AUSA) but her university path changed drastically - from thinking she’d study fine art to pursuing a double degree in law and international relations.
She says she wishes she’d been told what you pick when you’re 17 or 18 “doesn’t have to be the be all and end all - you can still be working it out”.
When I was in Year 13 we felt like there was so much pressure to decide what you were going to do with the rest of your life then, and if you made the wrong decision you really screwed up.
In reality, many people start one course only to pursue something else.
“Part of going to university is finding what you’re passionate about, so if you start and you’re not enjoying your course, it’s good to reflect and think ‘Are there things I’m passionate about more?’,” she says.
Waiheke High School’s head girl Kayla Hamilton finds it “strange” that the decisions she makes now will affect the rest of her life without “really having any idea how it will go”.
“Growing up on Waiheke and having a very stable school life, I have always known what I would be doing in the immediate future,” she says.
My greatest fear of leaving school is the fear of the unknown ... but this fear is also a kind of excitement for me, as although I fear change, it also really drives me.
She says she’s “not the kind of person to wait for opportunities to come around”.
The 17-year-old hopes to work in the film industry and has already had some work experience on sets. Her next career step is studying film at university or film school.
“I am aware that getting into and then working in the film industry is very difficult compared to other job industries, but I believe that my pure passion for film and attitude will allow me to pursue the line of work,” she says.
Tamara Johnston, from Pacific Advance Secondary School, wants to pursue higher education in New Zealand, but her biggest fear is failure - or as she puts it, “not being able to achieve high enough”.
The middle child in a family of seven, she’s come to Auckland on her own from Samoa to study. Her family is planning on joining her, but for now she lives on her own.
Auckland’s pretty different to home, she says. “It’s big,” for one thing, and there’s a lot more going on. She loves the opportunities in the city though, and says she’s open to anything that comes out of work or school.
Jo Wilkins, manager of student relations at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), says the perception that university is supposed to be a “big new wide world and this exciting place” can freak first years out.
Sometimes, it’s meant that students actually question their own capabilities and confidence. Even though they might be really academically able, they’re not sure whether they’re going to succeed in the university sector.
Both the University of Auckland and AUT have services to ease the transition to university: welfare grants, orientation, peer-to-peer mentoring, work experience, counselling.
But France is “not convinced” universities - or government - are doing enough to support first year students. Mentoring and youth workers can help students deal with pressures associated with transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, but he says we need to build a “whole infrastructure” to provide support for young people.
“You’ve got to make sure that their pathways to the future are more secure. It does require us to give some serious attention and not just leave it to the public sector or private sector.
“You cannot leave this group without support. We get this view that by the time they’re 18, that’s it off you go. No, it’s not. It’s hard and they need help.”
Reporting: Brittany Keogh and Josephine Franks
Visuals: Lawrence Smith
Animation and design: Kathryn George
Data: Andy Fyers
Development: John Harford
Editors: John Hartevelt and Blair Ensor