Posted August 17, 2012 by Mara Dahlgren 

Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

“Get comfortable with the uncomfortable.” I don’t know who first said this or when we decided to make this part of our student affairs mantra, but this quote seems to permeate the student affairs field. I’ve heard it numerous times, especially during diversity class and training; however, it never really meant anything to me until my trip to New Zealand this past May. Marae at University of Auckland

For two and a half weeks, I traveled with Bowling Green State University and peers from across the country to see what higher education and student affairs looks like in New Zealand. As part of the study tour, we visited six higher education institutions where we were able to tour the campuses, learn their histories, and meet with students and staff members to better understand their experiences in the field.

For the majority of these schools, our first greeters were the Māori staff, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Māori people have experienced oppression and discrimination similarly to indigenous people in the United States. Currently, the Māori culture is being revived by its people with assistance from the New Zealand government due to a scare in the 1980s that the Māori language was disappearing.

Their attempts have been fruitful. While the Māori make up only a small portion of the student population in higher education, their numbers are growing. Due to their presence on college campuses, maraes and cultural centers have been created to meet their specific needs.

The marae is an intricately decorated building showcasing Māori history and beliefs where Māori people come together for meetings and ceremonies. One of the ceremonies the Māori perform is the pōwhiri, a welcoming ceremony between the local iwi (tribe) and the visiting one. My touring group was considered a visiting tribe so we needed to go through a pōwhiri at many of the institutions before we visited the rest of campus.

Leaving the MaraeThe pōwhiri involves the local iwi greeting the visiting iwi through speeches and songs. The ceremony ends with the hongi where the iwi and the visiting iwi greet each other by touching foreheads and/or noses together. This is done to share the same breath of life. After performing the hongi, the visiting iwi is no longer considered a visiting tribe, but rather community members.

As a white American who has lost much of her cultural heritage, meeting people with strong ties to their culture makes me nervous. My initial worries were that I didn’t know enough about the Māori people to positively interact with them. What if I said the wrong thing and showed my ignorance? Oh, and the hongi terrified me the most! I would have to get that close to strangers? It was scary to be that vulnerable, to allow a complete stranger into my physical space without a foundation of trust. 

During my first pōwhiri, I was nervous the entire time. I was worried my professor would say something wrong, and I was worried my peers and I would mess up a cultural ceremony and ruin our relationship with the Māori people. After going through the pōwhiri a few times and meeting with the indigenous people in formal and informal settings, I realized my worries were unfounded. The Māori people were genuinely happy as to meet us and get to know us as we were them.

Te Papa Museum Quote about MāoriI also grew to appreciate the hongi. After performing it, I never felt more a part of community as I did with the staff members at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, and Victoria University. After being that close to people, you get over your trepidation and it seems like you can interact more freely and openly. Questions were easier to ask and conversations were easier to hold. We felt like a unified community learning together rather than a visiting group learning from the local people.  

While I still don’t enjoy being uncomfortable (does anyone, really?), I have realized the rewards of stepping outside my comfort zone. By doing so, I was able to learn so much more about the Māori people and their culture. Through this experience, I also realized the importance of continued exposure to difference because I know I would not have gained my appreciation for the pōwhiri and the hongi if I had only done it once. I understand now why “get comfortable with the uncomfortable” is said over and over, because like most sayings, it’s true. 

Mara Dahlgren

Mara Dahlgren is the Assistant Director, Activities & Events at Indiana University–Bloomington.

Mara serves as an advisor for the Indiana Memorial Union Board, helping student leaders and student employees plan events on campus. She completed her undergraduate education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and completed her master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University–Bloomington, where she gained experience in the operations side of the college union as the building manager.


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