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Breaking down the barriers to success

  • Mary Star
    Mary Star receiving the Best Overall Academic Performance award

Mary Star and her husband moved to New Zealand from Russia in 2013. Seven years later, she is an Architectural Technician at leading property consultancy Maynard Marks - having completed a Diploma in Architectural Technology at Unitec and won three awards in the process

When Mary’s husband was offered a job in New Zealand in 2013, the couple had just two weeks to pack up their lives and move to the other side of the world. With limited English and no connections in New Zealand, she says the first few months were particularly tough.

“We arrived with just a few suitcases, not able to speak the language. Everything was foreign to us - pick any aspect of life and it was different! While I’d been studying English in Russia, it wasn’t to a level that allowed me to communicate. I could read, but that was it. We had to work really hard to build up our language skills.”

In 2016, Mary made the decision to study for a Diploma in Architectural Technology at Unitec, and started her degree the following year as a Domestic Student. 

“When I applied at Unitec I already had New Zealand residency, so I registered as a Domestic Student. It meant that English was my main language, so grammar mistakes wouldn’t be tolerated! My main concern was whether I’d be able to understand the lectures and be able to keep up.”

Mary didn’t just keep up - she went on to win three awards during her two-year degree, including Top First Year Student, Top Second Year Student, and a Best Overall Academic Performance award from the New Zealand Institute of Building

“When I received my first award it helped to give me confirmation that I was doing well. Before then I wasn’t sure - I’d had to push very hard and rely a lot on Grammarly! One thing that had really helped my English improve was working in Unitec’s PASS programme, assisting fellow architecture students with their papers. I had to talk to students from many different countries, find ways to communicate and understand one another. They would correct my accent and I would correct theirs!” 

Real world learning

Mary also says the staff and lecturers at Unitec were a huge support throughout her degree, with one particular lecturer making a real impact. 

“One of my architecture lecturers was studying carpentry at the time, as she wanted to better understand how a building is actually built. She invited me on site to see the small houses they were building as part of their course, and it was a real turning point for me. I was able to put labels to particular parts of the building, walk through a half-built structure and see how it was going to be put together. I believe the question of buildability is so important in architecture. Drawing is one thing, but you have to understand how a building is going to be built on site. 

“The great thing about Unitec is that it’s very practice-oriented, not just about theory. They think about what students will do when they leave their studies, and do their best to help get us ready for the working world. Whether it’s through group assignments, where you have to deal with different personalities, or getting experience using sites like the council website. When you’re studying mistakes are free. In real life you have to pay for your errors - so it’s much better to get it wrong while you’re still learning!”

As an older student originally from another country, Mary also appreciated the diversity Unitec offered in terms of age and nationality.

“I was 40 when I started my diploma, and the median age in the Architectural Technology Diploma was 37. I found that most of the students were mature enough to work hard and understand what they were getting themselves into and where they wanted to be. Unitec also has a lot of different cultures, all of whom have different approaches to study. I believe diversity is so important. If we bring different points of view together we can create something better, something new. Sometimes you just need to look at things from a different perspective.”

Starting her career

Mary met Maynard Marks Director Trevor Jones when she received her Top First Year Student award, and he offered her a two-week summer internship at the company. The internship turned into a part-time role while Mary was still studying, and then a full-time role once she graduated.

“I started in a full-time capacity at Maynard Marks in early 2019. At the same time, I became a Tutor’s Assistant at Unitec - helping architecture students with any questions they have about their degrees. It certainly keeps me busy, but I love it.”

The Maynard Marks Architecture Team works on a wide variety of projects from commercial through to residential. As a technician, Mary completes architectural drawings and works closely with lead architects, structural engineers, fire engineers and façade engineers in the process. 

“I spent my first year moving between different types of projects, which gave me a real insight into different ways to deal with jobs. We don’t have easy projects at Maynard Marks! I’ve been able to work on everything from 2-3 storey buildings to very tall skyscrapers, and I’m currently working on a project in Queenstown - so it’s given me a very diverse range of experience.”

Mary has come a long way since first moving to New Zealand in 2013, both in terms of her English and her career. She says she always knew architecture was for her and, with the support of Unitec, worked hard to make it happen. 

“Whenever you start something new it’s a bit scary, a bit unknown. When I was studying, it was sometimes hard to see why we were being asked to do certain things. But, when I joined Maynard Marks, it all came together for me. I firmly believe you can achieve anything through hard work, no matter what the barriers.”

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