Holly Frewen is used to travelling, so making the trek from the depths of Fiordland’s Manapōuri hydro station to be in Timaru to graduate with her New Zealand Certificate in Mechanical Engineering (Trade) (Level 4) is no big deal.

What is a big deal is being given the chance to celebrate this milestone.

“All through school I worked hard. I wasn’t a standout, but I kept at it and I never really had a celebration of my achievement – so this is huge for me. I’ve dedicated four years of my life to this,” the 21-year-old says.

She’s one of 70 graduates who will cross the stage in front of family and supporters at Caroline Bay Hall on Thursday at the Ara | Te Pūkenga graduation for South Canterbury campuses. The procession of graduates will walk along Bay Hill (weather permitting) and down to the venue at 12.45pm.

Frewen grew up in a workshop environment ‘always tinkering with cars’. Having taken engineering at Twizel Area School, she jumped at the chance to get involved in projects such as building a hovercraft and even a jet boat.

But after participating in the Girls with Hi-Vis (GWHV) introductory programme through Connexis Infrastructure Training, her eyes were opened to large scale engineering. Working underground as a mechanical fitter at Manapōuri sure ticked the boxes.

“Working with cars is fiddly and difficult,” she says. “The sheer size of what we deal with is so much easier. We don’t have tight awkward spaces and the cranes and equipment we use can lift hundreds of tonnes. It’s so impressive – I don’t know how to put it into words.”

The path to her dream job at Aotearoa’s largest power station – where she’s been for the past two years– began with a Meridian Energy gateway programme on the Ohau Chain (on the upper Waitaki River) while still at school in Twizel.

Then she began her apprenticeship with Meridian at Lake Benmore Hydro-Electric power station in Otematata and embarked on her New Zealand Certificate in Mechanical Engineering through Ara.

“It’s been great in that it’s been a really flexible way to learn. The whole group has done really well,” she says of her class.

The years of driving from Twizel, then Otematata to Timaru for block courses, as well as night classes and Zoom classes while working in Manapōuri, had all been worth it.

“I enjoy being a mechanical fitter. In short, I work underground all day on the mechanical components of the generating equipment for the Manapōuri Hydro Electric Station – everything from minor repairs to major overhauls. It’s honestly different every day.”

Working all day under fluorescent lights, Frewen said the work can be complex and physically demanding. “But bonus – you don’t feel earthquakes.”

Frewen enjoys working with a small team of experienced experts in the field and counts herself as a bit of a ground breaker underground. “I’ve only encountered a couple of women contractors in my time so far, but I have noticed a lot more women in the electrical engineering field,” she says.

The days are long – starting before 6am with a 20-minute drive from Te Anau and a then 45-minute boat ride to get to the station.

“I used to be based out of Manapōuri village for my first year but made the move to Te Anau to be around a few more people and a few more shops,” she says.

But she’s excited to be back in Timaru for graduation. “I’m looking forward to a takeaway after the ceremony – you don’t get many in Te Anau so that will be treat.”