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Third-year sociology student Miranda Livers is originally from California but has been studying at Willamette University in Oregon.
The 19-year-old is the first overseas student to be welcomed on the Turangawaewae Pokai Whenua exchange, set up to host students from indigenous communities in Australia, Canada and the United States and give them some experience of Maori culture.
The programme also enables Maori students from the University of Otago to travel overseas to the six partner universities that are involved, allowing them to gain connections with other communities.
Ms Livers, whose great-grandfather was Cherokee, said she grew up without much of an understanding of the culture. She was prompted to do some research after applying for the programme, and ended up travelling to Oklahoma, to learn more about her ancestors.
"My parents never really put an emphasis on what [my heritage] meant. It wasn’t really something that I was raised in," she said.
Some of the ideas accepted as fact about the Cherokee were not true, Ms Livers said. An example was the idea they all lived in teepees, when they were a "sedentary" agricultural people who did not move around.
"I got the story that’s not told in the history books," she said.
Ms Livers will spend a semester at the University of Otago, and said the Maori Centre was arranging for her to visit places and people in the community.
University of Otago student Barlow Anderson, who has Ngati Rongomai, Tuhoe, Te Whakatohea, Ngati Manawa, Ngati Tahinga, Ngati Koata and Ngati Porou descent, is also travelling to Memorial University in Canada on the exchange programme next semester.
Ms Livers said when she finished her degree she wanted to help indigenous communities and had thought about teaching, counselling, or working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There will be an official launch of the exchange programme at the university on July 16.