New Zealand Offers International Students Transformative Cultural Experiences

By Lisa Futschek, Education New Zealand Regional Director Americas and Europe

Sometimes, when talking to US students I’ve noticed they think of studying in New Zealand as a less challenging option than a foreign-language destination.

Choosing to study in New Zealand, in fact, is to choose an English-speaking destination that is one of the world’s most culturally diverse countries. More than 200 nationalities call Auckland, our largest city, home.  It is the world’s biggest Polynesian city and fourth most diverse city, ahead of Sydney, Los Angeles, London, and even New York.

Approximately a quarter of all New Zealanders were born overseas, many from countries where English is not the first language. The percentage of people living in Auckland who were born abroad is even higher at nearly 40 percent.

International students in New Zealand learn from how we embrace the partnership between Māori and non-Māori, and inclusion of Māori values in everyday life. We have three official languages, Te Reo Māori, Sign Language[LF1], and English.

Kiwis enjoy many different cultural traditions and students can have rich and diverse experiences such as attending Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Day festival, and Chinese New Year celebrations.

Unlike other parts of the world where religious and ethnic conflict is on the rise, New Zealand stands out. We are a progressive liberal democracy. We rank highly on global rankings for safety, peacefulness, commitment to gender equality, and environmental issues. While our history of bicultural relations is imperfect, our efforts to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and make amends are unique. New Zealand’s moves to incorporate Māori language and culture into every aspect of life are genuine and visible.

New Zealand’s founding document is the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between the British Crown and Māori Rangatira (chiefs). It is of central importance to the relationship between the tangata whenua, or people of the land, and the New Zealand government. The British Crown did not always honour the Treaty and, in many instances, this led to Māori losing access to their land and other resources.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Treaty became the basis for a protest movement, which called for the government to redress Treaty grievances.  The Treaty of Waitangi Act was passed in 1975 and the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission charged with investigating claims and making recommendations, was formed. In the years since, the New Zealand government has negotiated with Māori to settle their historical claims. It has apologised for its past actions, returned some land to Māori, and paid approximately NZ$2.2 billion in financial redress.

All international students in New Zealand will experience Māori culture.  Many receive a pōwhiri or formal Māori welcome as part of orientation. This sets the tone of manaakitanga, the spirit of generosity, hosting and mutual respect for our visitors.  Students become part of their respective institution’s whānau or family. A good example of this is Auckland University of Technology’s Noho Marae, where students spend a weekend at a traditional Māori meeting house learning about Māori culture and customs. AUT has also established a North American Whānau Council which connects US alumni for cultural activities and discussions.

For Brook Thompson, who is from the Yurok and Karuk tribes of northern California, studying Māori culture in New Zealand gave her greater confidence in her cultural identity.

“Being in New Zealand was one of the happiest times in my entire life. It not only helped me grow as a person but reassured me of who I am,” she says.

She has stayed in contact with Māori friends and with the teacher of her Māori class who was a big influence on her. “He talked to us about things like lands rights, water rights and religious freedom, which are issues that indigenous peoples around the world have in common.”

It is important to note that while the cultural experience New Zealand offers students is transformative, the quality of formal education students receive is also world leading. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Educating for the Future Index recently ranked New Zealand 1st in the world for preparing students for the future. We excel in areas such as university-industry collaboration, teacher education and a curriculum framework that takes into account the skills likely to be in demand in the future.

When US students return home after their time in New Zealand, we like to think that a piece of New Zealand stays in their hearts. Some may also be carrying a piece around their necks, having been gifted a pounamu (greenstone) pendant, a constant and unique reminder of their special experience. Pounamu, found only in rivers of the South Island, plays a very important role in Māori culture. It is considered a taonga (treasure) increasing in mana (prestige) as it passes from one generation to another.

I’ll end with a whakatauki of relevance to students choosing a study abroad destination.

Me mātau ki te whetū, i mua i te kōkiri o te hāere – Before you set forth on a journey, be sure you know the stars.

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