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Skidmore College
Off-Campus Study & Exchanges


Lauren Tobias, 2012

Lauren studied in New Zealand through IES during the spring 2011 semester.   

It did not take longer than a week to confirm that I had made the right decision to spend my semester abroad in Christchurch, New Zealand. The city and the people had a quirky and friendly personality unmatched by any place I had ever been. You would not go ten minutes on campus without a new person approaching you asking where you’re from, what classes you’re taking, or if you want to play pickup soccer on the quad. The city had so much character, whether you were visiting the outside markets, botanical gardens, historic landmarks, unique stores and restaurants, or experiencing the nightlife. Now fast-forward twelve days, my new friends and I have spent the past ten hours in the same somber room waiting for power, clean water, and news updates on the fatal damage.

In a matter of ten seconds, the abroad experience I had pictured spun into something I had never expected when possibly the most tragic earthquake to ever hit New Zealand struck the beautiful city of Christchurch. The hundred year-old Christchurch Cathedral was flattened, there had been over one hundred confirmed deaths, and no one was allowed even close to the city’s center. A few friends and I decided to leave the following morning to get away from the aftershocks and the now depressing, grey atmosphere.  This was not the Christchurch that we had already fallen in love with. During our three-day getaway, we were told that for safety purposes, our entire program was being transferred to Auckland, a city on the North Island of the country. We were all extremely disappointed because we had finally began to feel comfortable in this new place, and now were being suddenly uprooted to a much larger city. Most of us chose Christchurch because unlike Auckland, it wasn’t a metropolitan area, but rather was a small, unique city with surrounding natural beauty.

It took a while to relax in Auckland. Besides the fact that I was much more jumpy and on edge toward sudden noises, classes had already started and I had to sign up for a whole new course load immediately. I needed someone to talk to about what we had all been through, and anyone that I was close enough with to comfort me was halfway across the world.  However, I soon realized that as much as I wondered how the semester would have gone if the earthquake had not hit, it did, so there was no use unrealistically wishing the semester would be anything that I had fathomed before arriving. I slowly became less bitter toward the fact that I was not in Christchurch, and once I did, I began to love Auckland. Eventually, I was able to begin having the abroad experience I had (somewhat) pictured. I made more friends, joined clubs on campus, and took weekend trips to see places on the North Island. When I eventually went back to the South Island, I knew exactly where I wanted to visit. How many people normally get the opportunity tolive in two different parts of their host country?

Although I originally did not want to live in a city, Auckland offered things that Christchurch did not. Everything was easily accessible, I was more incorporated into the culture and less segregated on a college campus, and I was able to take New Zealand culture classes not offered in Christchurch. In fact, my favorite class involved learning the traditional songs, dances, and practices of the indigenous Maori people, taught by professors with a strong Maori background.  I felt even further integrated with the culture and Kiwi life when I joined the club field hockey team. Through hockey, I hung out with the local girls my age and witnessed from a non-tourist perspective how more than twenty of them lived. We talked extensively about cultural differences, similarities, and things I needed to experience while in New Zealand. All the while, we were playing a sport we loved. Playing hockey was also the first thing to connect me to home since having been put out of my comfort zone after the earthquake.

When we first arrived, I got to meet the 30 other IES Abroad students, those on the Auckland program.  Usually, these two groups never meet, but now, we all molded as a part of “IES Auckland”. We became better acquainted on our weeklong trip to the Cook Islands during our spring break.  It turned out that some of my closest friends from my abroad experience were on the Auckland program. 

As devastating and catastrophic as this earthquake was, the experience that it provided helped me change and mature in ways that I am not sure I ever would have.   I learned quickly that I could not be so stuck on one idea, because by closing my mind, I would only miss out on other opportunities. The fact that I was still able to have a great semester showed me that happiness is completely dependent on perspective. There will always be an “ideal” situation, but perhaps the current situation is relatively ideal if you choose to look at it that way. Now, rather than dwelling on what I am missing, I can much more easily ignore the negative aspects of my life and cherish the positives.

Aside from the unique events that my group and I had been through, simply living in a new country is enough to generate a life-changing experience. Through learning the culture, the laws, and the norms, and through meeting the locals, I saw the things I took for granted about life in the United States. A minor example: I made a few Kiwis their first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I was previously under the impression that PB & J was a staple combination to the world. On a larger scale, Europeans often take a year off to travel after school before settling into a long-term job. This never occurred to me; I thought the logical life progression was high school, college, and then get a job.  In New Zealand I was able to see a whole new way of life, which taught me to look at things more critically to determine if my actions are actually what I want, rather than what is expected of me.

The new perspectives I have gained because of my semester abroad, in addition to the beautifully picturesque places I was able to visit, are so invaluable to who I am as a person. I feel so lucky to have had this experience, and could not imagine where I would be now without it.