Illustrations: Sloane Hong
Illustrations: Sloane Hong

PartnersSeptember 9, 2021

The vital role of international education in keeping Aotearoa connected

Illustrations: Sloane Hong
Illustrations: Sloane Hong

Before the pandemic, New Zealand was a temporary home for over 100,000 international students – global citizens who bring their knowledge, experiences, culture and diversity with them.

The future looks like arts and crafts. In a room at the TSB Arena in Wellington in August, the Festival for the Future expo floor is packed with things to paint and fold and stick and make. At a stall for the Sustainable Development Goals I pick up a wooden bead representing the 11th goal – sustainable cities and communities – and paint it carefully orange, ready to be strung into a bright pattern with everyone else’s. 

As a shameless eavesdropper, this is my natural habit. I listen to two people discuss 3D printing, while another group sip ethical soda on colourful beanbags and chat about responsible investment. 

At the Education New Zealand Manapou ki te Ao (ENZ) stall people line up for coffee while filling out forms about their experience of “global citizenship”. ENZ is the crown entity responsible for international education in Aotearoa. In 2019, pre-Covid-19, there were over 100,000 international students in New Zealand, studying mostly at tertiary institutions, but also at primary and secondary schools. Since 2013, more than 2,400 New Zealanders have been awarded Prime Minister’s Scholarships to study in Asia or Latin America. 

Global citizenship is an essential part of New Zealand’s international education strategy, and these inbound and outbound students represent an opportunity to create global connections, research links and broad partnerships for New Zealand.

ENZ partnered with the Festival for the Future to discuss what international education and global citizenship looks like in the unique confines of 2021. For Carla Rey Vasquez, ENZ’s global citizenship manager, the strategy’s value in an era of limited travel is the gift of a dual perspective to complex problems. It is also an opportunity to help New Zealanders understand the nuanced and mutual benefits of international education and the long-term relationships it creates with people around the world. 

“Our world is characterized by complex issues. Global citizenship offers an opportunity to find ways to navigate and respond to those issues through shared understanding,” she says. “It’s about realising the value and power of your identity and knowledge, but also acknowledging the potential of others’ experience and perspectives on the world.”

This is a worldview that Rey Vasquez says is built on a relationship of local belonging and responsibility to our people as well as people across the world. International education is an essential way New Zealand builds that bond with the rest of the world, bringing diverse people, organisations and countries together. 

Vasquez, a former international student herself, knows how transformational international education can be for both the student and New Zealand. 

“It brings the world to our home, if we can harness the cultural value that international students bring to New Zealand we will all grow as global learners,” she says.  

Illustrations: Sloane Hong

ENZ sees global citizenship as a way to bring shared understanding and learning between countries and cultures. Marc Doesburg, senior innovation advisor at ENZ, believes it offers new perspectives on the world, and a chance to question one’s own understanding. 

“We give young people an opportunity to critique [their cultures] by going overseas, to see that things are done differently here.”

International students are a significant source of income for education institutions and the New Zealand economy, contributing more than $5b in 2019. But for both ENZ and international students the benefits students bring New Zealand are far broader than a GDP injection.

“I don’t want us just to be seen as bringing money – we bring culture, we bring international values…we want to know local people,” says Claire Lu, a Taiwanese student studying politics and international relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

That works both ways – studying abroad was an “invaluable” experience for New Zealander Anna de Boer, who studied Mandarin in Shanghai as part of a Prime Minister’s Scholarship and has been back to China several times since. De Boer now works with international students at Victoria University of Wellington. She wants to reframe the narrative that international students “come here, take something, then go back to their home country.”

There’s a huge benefit in how international students can take a piece of New Zealand home with them, and leave an important part of their own story behind in Aotearoa too, says De Boer. This builds long term relationships that have value far beyond the years they spend studying.

Illustrations: Sloane Hong

Covid-19 has obviously had a huge impact on international education. It’s changed the shape and delivery of ENZ’s programmes, but it has also been an opportunity for new approaches. Exchanges between New Zealand and internationally-based classrooms have continued digitally, a concept ENZ has pushed for years, and shown how education can continue to build global citizens even when borders are closed.

She tells me about a marae graduation she attended to celebrate a rangatahi who has been part of a global programme conducted fully online. It brought together international teams of young people to find commercially viable solutions to problems in their own communities. 

The effects of programmes like this can reach the lives of people who might never travel overseas. By participating in global educational programmes online, you have what Doesburg calls a “talisman”, something tangible that connects you to the world. 

“There’s an obligation for education to stay globally engaged, to exchange ideas, to exchange best practice, and give our students the strongest opportunity they can to really broaden their skills and cultural competence,” he says.

Hannah Prince was born in New Zealand but lived most of her life in Thailand. She moved back to study linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington. Though she can’t see her family – who are still in Thailand – at the moment, she has built new local connections at university through Newswatch and International Friendship Club, spaces for international students and New Zealanders to connect with each other. 

“I found connecting with people from around the world really helps to understand why people do things differently. Learning about different people’s experiences and cultures can really enrich your own knowledge of the world,” she says. 

In her time in China, De Boer discovered the same thing. The university context was a way to connect with people with a shared purpose, and interests – much easier than going to China on her own. At the university, she could easily connect with others. 

“You’re seeing everyone on campus, you’re waving, you’re eating and you’re all working towards a similar goal of improving your language skills so you’re motivated to go and find friends,” she says. 

Her work now with international students is informed by the “joy of being able to communicate with someone you’d never otherwise have had an opportunity to communicate with.” 

Knowing the intensity of living in a distant country has been an important background to De Boer’s work with international students on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Manaaki scholarships, many of whom are unable to see their families due to the pandemic. 

“Having that experience helps me to identify with students who are having a tough time.”

Illustrations: Sloane Hong

When Claire Lu arrived in New Zealand, she found a community in language exchange groups. These places become what De Boer calls “bridges” across communities. She encourages New Zealanders to be that connection that someone might need when they arrive here. When she moved home she found comfort in finding friends who knew what she meant when she used a Chinese word in an English sentence.

De Boer’s story resonates: when I moved from India to Aotearoa to study, I felt like my ability to talk to people relied on me understanding niche pop culture references. I felt drawn to people who looked and spoke like me, people who were fascinated by the way that Aotearoa is inextricably tangled with a beautiful, varied world. That’s the power of global citizenship. 

Rey Vasquez uses te reo terms to anchor ENZ’s global citizenship approach in the values of a Māori worldview. 

“If you give people a sense of place by going abroad or coming here, you show the value of kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga, whanaungatanga in action.” 

These aren’t transactional relationships, where you pay money to get a degree, and maybe a visa, then a job; it goes far beyond that. This is the point of global citizenship, Doesburg says. 

“There’s a lot of diversity in perspective.”

Even with the Covid-19 altered landscape, international education is a reminder that New Zealand isn’t alone. Prince brings her experiences in Aotearoa and Thailand to her linguistics classes; Lu is studying the quirks of New Zealand politics while thinking about Taiwan; de Boer knows that when she next goes to China she’ll be able to organise a wi-fi router in a foreign language. They’re all learning to belong to New Zealand and the world, both at once.

This content was created in paid partnership with Education New Zealand.

As the only New Zealand government agency solely dedicated to international education, Education New Zealand has a significant role to play in helping Aotearoa New Zealand realise the social, cultural, and economic benefits of international education and lead the transformation of international education to a sustainable, diverse, and resilient sector.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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