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"Buzzing". . . St Kevin's College year 13 pupil Rhea Ratgali is the 2021 Race Unity Speech Awards lower South Island regional champion. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“We are all in the same waka, we’re all in the same canoe, no matter what ethnicity or colour we are.”

That was one of the messages Rhea Ratgali delivered in her speech in this year’s lower South Island Race Unity Speech Awards in Dunedin.

The year 13 St Kevin’s College pupil walked away as the regional champion and secured a place in the national semifinals.

“It feels amazing,” Rhea said.

“I’m buzzing.”

She was following in the footsteps of her brother, Karan, a former St Kevin’s pupil, who was the 2015 regional winner.

He encouraged her to enter the competition.

Each year, competitors are given a topic to run with. This year’s was “Kia kotahi te hoe – paddle as one”.

Rhea spoke about how important it was to support one another.

“At the end of the day we are all human beings, so it’s important we support one another.”

This sentiment was embodied by her use of multiple languages.

She spoke mostly in English, but incorporated te reo Maori by performing a waiata (song), and Hindi – as a nod to her Indian heritage.

“I was happy [to] include my culture into it as well; it actually felt comfortable”

Even if people could not understand it, they still connected with her.

“It meant a lot.”

She was happy to see New Zealand was starting to accept all other cultures, but thought schools could do more to encourage and teach pupils about Maori culture.

“I don’t see a lot of people who can introduce themselves or say hello in the language.”

Learning the waiata in te reo was her biggest challenge. She used plenty of online resources and received help from two Maori women from her parish and her mother’s co-worker, who were all fluent.

“I asked for help – and they were ready.”

Rhea has been public speaking since she was 5, and has been using every day of the school holidays to practise.

“I have faced many crowds, but this Auckland one is very different.”

She will compete with more than 20 pupils at the semifinals in Auckland on May 7 and will attend the annual Race Unity hui. If successful, she will then compete at the national final on May 9.