Next Step Connections’ vision for indigenous empowerment in global education

In the face of persistent educational disparities that disproportionately that are affecting all students worldwide, Next Step Connections has embarked on a mission to equip young individuals and future leaders for an increasingly interconnected world. Part of this is fostering and ensuring inclusivity and equal opportunity in international education. 

According to The World Bank, Indigenous people constitute about 6% of the global population but represent 19% of the extreme poor, with a life expectancy up to 20 years lower than that of non-Indigenous people. 

“Within countries, the pandemic has further revealed inequalities faced by vulnerable groups, which may include indigenous peoples, in their enjoyment of human rights such as access to health care, information in languages that are best understood, and participation in decision-making, cultural life, national education and the economy. Specific vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples may be understood through the lens of their capacity to engage in cultural and livelihood practices, social organisation and initiatives that aim to deal with the current crisis,” writes a UNESCO report. This adds a layer of complexity to the already challenging landscape of indigenous education.

Founded by Jérôme Le Carrou, Next Step Connections is dedicated to reducing these educational gaps through immersive educational programs that connect all students with global opportunities, equipping them with the necessary cultural understandings, experience and soft skills to prepare them for the world. “We aim to transform lives by providing educational journeys that are not only about acquiring knowledge the traditional way but also about understanding and bridging cultural divides,” explains Le Carrou. The company offers a range of programs and initiatives specifically designed to meet students’ needs, which are significantly bolstered by supportive funding from initiatives like the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan, the New Zealand Prime Minister Scholarship Award, the Freeman Foundation Scholarship for East Asia Internships and more. These programs combine cultural workshops and work experiences with local and international businesses in Asia to provide a holistic educational experience that integrates a range of perspectives. By doing so, the organization not only helps students gain practical skills but also fosters a deeper understanding of global business and cultural dynamics.

For example, The Prime Minister’s Scholarships for Asia (PMSA) and Latin America (PMSLA), managed by Education New Zealand Manapou ki te Ao (ENZ), have played a pivotal role in broadening horizons through international education and cultural exchanges among the country’s students. Since launching in 2013, these scholarships have enabled more than 4,155 New Zealanders to embark on educational journeys abroad. 

Within these initiatives, there has been a concerted effort to increase Māori participation. Statistics have shown a rise in Māori involvement, reflecting a growing recognition of the value of providing international educational opportunities to indigenous communities. “It is a great demonstration of how ENZ is effectively partnering with whānau Māori to achieve global citizenship outcomes and transform the way that international education delivers with and for Māor,” says Carla Rey Vasquez, the Global Citizens Manager at Education New Zealand Manapou ki te Ao (ENZ). 

This impact can also be seen through the experiences and stories of those like Warisarang Thungthongrojana, a Hmong entrepreneur who partnered with Next Step Connections to showcase her work and journey to students at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire (UWEC). “I’ve always wondered why we didn’t have beautiful patterns like this on our daily clothes to wear,” Warisarang reflects, emphasizing the importance of cultural representation in mainstream industries.

Warisarang Thungthongrojana’s designs from her business, Waris.

Reflecting on her own experiences, Warisarang emphasized the importance of education in equipping her with the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate the complexities of starting and running a business. “Having the opportunity to get an education is very important to me. Although Waris’ products are of cultural significance and promote an indigenous aspect, in order to carry it out efficiently and successfully in each step of the work, it is necessary to have the knowledge of the business side as a strong backbone.” 

Similarly, the experiences of Kiharoa and Taimana Iversen, twin brothers from New Zealand who interned in Bangkok through a program facilitated by Next Step Connections, highlight the power of integrating cultural heritage into global education. 

Next Step connections
Taimana Iversen during his internship in Bangkok

“I was really lucky to share the experience with my twin brother,” explains Kiharoa. Taimana echoes this sentiment, “But I think the coolest thing for me was meeting completely new people from all different places, and the people that were my work colleagues were probably the highlight of my trip.”

Taimana’s reflections on his time in Thailand highlight the unique opportunity to share and celebrate his Māori heritage with new friends and colleagues from around the world. 

“That was probably one of my main highlights,” he began, “being able to show who I am and show an understanding of my people. What was cool is when we did go to the university, I was able to speak and share my story and show my language. They gave it a go, like they would always ask me for simple phrases or words in Māori that I could share with them, and they always were really intrigued to learn more … I saw a big connection between Thai cultural values and [New Zealand’s] cultural values which was awesome.”

Kiharoa further elaborates on how these intercultural interactions were central to their experience, explaining that the cultural exchange that Next Step Connections facilitated for him and his brother was particularly important in terms of their internship experience, both for deepening their connection to their host country and for the wealth of opportunities it afforded them to share their Māori culture abroad.

“We aim to Inspire, equip but also to shed light on cultural uniqueness and profoundness. Our programs are like cross-pollination bridges so we are grateful for  indigenous wisdom to enrich all corners of our community. It is very much needed in today’s world,” states Le Carrou. 

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