For the thousands of students in New Zealand their tertiary experience has been heavily impacted by Covid-19. For international students, that impact has meant separation from family, friends and familiarity.
The pandemic hasn’t been easy for students. While tertiary institutions moved to accommodate online classes and remote assessment – in theory keeping things moving relatively smoothly – the reality of study-from-home was often more fraught and complex than logging into live-streamed lectures and continuing as normal.
For students across Aotearoa, lockdown meant working from and being confined to their flats and halls of residence – with those in the former sometimes contending with substandard heating and patchy internet connections to boot. And with situations and guidance changing often, students complained too of unclear direction from institutional leadership throughout the period. For international students, those issues were exacerbated by their own unique challenges – having to settle simultaneously into a new culture and a “new normal”, all while living oceans away from their loved ones and home comforts.
While the specifics of their situations can vary widely, for many international students the story of the past few years is one of resilience. And in many cases, that resilience has been enabled and reinforced by strong support networks within and around the international student community.
The Spinoff talked to three international student leaders about why they chose to study in Aotearoa, and how building connections has helped them to stay afloat during the Covid era.
University of Auckland communications student Kedi Zou has been living and studying in New Zealand since 2019. She works in the marketing department for the University’s Chinese Student Union, creates blogs and vlogs to share her experience of studying in New Zealand, is a student ambassador for StudyAuckland, and a 2022 Kiwi Ambassador for Education New Zealand. While this isn’t her first international study experience, Zou says the warmth of New Zealanders has been a real comfort over her time here. Small things can have a big impact.
“The most impressive thing is that people will say thank you to the bus driver when they get off the bus,” says Zou. When her key got stuck in the corner of the bus floor and the driver parked up to join her on his knees to fish it out, “no one [on the bus] complained!” she laughs.
When the pandemic hit, Zou was stuck in China, studying online for 16 months as she waited for a border exemption to allow her to return. She arrived last August, but after two weeks of quarantine, Auckland announced another set of lockdowns that lasted until December. “The period was really challenging for me,” she admits.
Continuing to attend “Let’s Talk” workshops over Zoom – designed for international students to practise their English with volunteers – Zou met a retired primary school teacher. “It’s really helpful for my English speaking but also my mental health, to talk to someone.” Once lockdowns were over, Zou met up with her new Zoom friend, who showed her some new Auckland haunts.
She’s also found Auckland to be a good balance between nature and cityscape, with lots of opportunities for outdoor activities – through student clubs, Zou recently tried out paddle boarding and skiing – and to meet new people.
In contrast to what she describes as the more rigid expectations of growing up in China, Zou says that New Zealand culture is friendly, chill and adventurous. And in being immersed in a different cultural mindset, she’s started to see herself in a different light.
She encourages students thinking of going on exchange to step out of their comfort zones and embrace the differences in culture that they will experience – and the kindred spirits they’ll find in the process.
When Colombian scientist, UN-recognised solution maker and PhD engineering student Bryann Avendano-Uribe decided to study abroad, he needed somewhere that could provide a flexible study programme and holistic approach to education. He also needed somewhere he could connect with small local governments for his thesis on building resilient communities and cities.
Aotearoa is one of the few places where his studies could bridge the gap between engineering and science, Avendano-Uribe soon found himself at the University of Canterbury, exploring Christchurch as a city still healing from the 2011 earthquakes. It took some work for Avendano-Uribe to adjust to New Zealand’s slower pace of living, but over time, that slow pace became an opportunity in its own right – time to socialise, to read and to explore.
Avendano-Uribe was grateful to have his university supervisor’s support during the pandemic, and the two would catch up every day to chat. He also made the most of exploring and hiking in different parts of the country, especially the South Island, and was able to tap into his love for climbing. “It’s a different way to explore the land, you see another perspective.”
Fittingly, given the significant role that farming plays both in Aotearoa and in many Latin cultures, Avendano-Uribe sums up his appreciation for his adopted home with a very agricultural simile: “New Zealand is like a big farm that feeds the world: with food, innovative ideas and a balanced lifestyle.”
He managed not to get too homesick during the Covid-19 lockdown, because his friends and mum in Colombia were just a click away online. He’s also found a supportive Latin American community in Canterbury – and has even been able to find some of his Colombian comfort foods locally.
“I feel like because we are so far away, Latin Americans build a strong community,” Avendano-Uribe says. Those connections with people from all around his home region have helped him to stay positive despite all of the disruption, and the common ground they’ve collectively found has helped to help them all feel a little less far from home.
Minnie Kalo Voi has always been outspoken, and has long been a leader. Growing up in Papua New Guinea with five younger siblings meant she was often responsible for everything from helping with school homework assignments to cooking dinner for the family. It was tough at times – “I’m sure many first-born daughters in brown families can relate,” she says – but she acknowledges too that having that early responsibility gave her a solid grounding in leadership.
Currently the Vice President of the New Zealand International Students’ Association (NZ ISA), Voi wants to make sure women are always present in decision-making roles. She has held representative roles at Massey University and the local Pasifika Association and throughout her various positions has pushed for her community’s needs, including advocating for international students to be able to go home as pandemic-imposed border restrictions have lifted.
She’s the second from her family to study in New Zealand, following in her father’s footsteps to study a Bachelor of Business Management and Economics at Massey University after receiving a scholarship from MFAT. She points to his experience and her family as a key motivator for her own. “They always said ‘when God created the world and made it good; He took his time with New Zealand, because it’s just so beautiful’.”
But living in New Zealand it hasn’t been an easy few years for Voi. Her brother passed away last year while New Zealand was still in lockdown, and unable to travel home, her mental health took a dip – and with services already stretched, it took weeks for her to be able to access counselling through the university.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” she says. “I was going through a really rough time. Like a deep hole.” It’s reflective of a challenge that Voi says is one of the most significant faced by the international student community: finding a sense of belonging in a situation which can naturally be quite alienating.
“Māori people are indigenous to Aotearoa, so coming here, I thought, ‘You’ll be fine, there are people that look like you. They have the same skin colour as you.’ But people still look at you with stereotypical views or unconscious bias in the lecture rooms.”
Despite those difficulties, Voi is motivated by the drive to provide a better life for herself, her family and the rangatahi who’ll be inspired to follow in her footsteps. In late 2020 she was honoured by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation for her work as a young Pacific leader, and has subsequently adopted her younger sister to provide her with the opportunity to also study abroad. And once she’s completed her studies, she hopes to take her Aotearoa-gained expertise back to Papua New Guinea and help the community that raised her.
While all of these students’ stories are unique, it’s easy to see how that common thread of resilience ties them all together. It’ll always be a challenge, of course, to travel thousands of kilometres from home and to immerse yourself in an entirely new social, cultural and educational climate, but for Voi it’s a challenge well worth taking on.
“You get to start your own life, build your networks, find friends and community here,” she says. “It’ll give you life lessons that you’ve never had before.”