A Student’s Perspective on Studying Abroad in New Zealand

U.S. student Melanie Harsch studied abroad for a year in New Zealand, and then returned to take on a PhD researching climate change through its effect on the tree line. She lives in Christchurch with her Kiwi husband, Malcolm.

University of Otago in New Zealand. Photo © Tomas Sobek/123rf.
University of Otago in New Zealand. Photo © Tomas Sobek/123rf.

What attracted you to studying in New Zealand?

New Zealand is a world leader in conservation biology. The overseas program I found in my undergraduate studies emphasized the opportunity to meet and work with biologists, government agencies, and community groups across the country.

How difficult was the process of applying to the university and getting your student visa? What advice would you give other students who are about to do this?

I found the process of applying for the visa for my undergraduate and PhD studies to be very easy. Read the instructions and start early, and if all else fails, call Immigration New Zealand. My biggest concern is the conflict between visa length and PhD length. The student visa is easily renewed after one year for two more years while studying here. After three years in New Zealand, you will need a new permit, which requires more (expensive) medical exams and police records. Most campuses have a staff member whose job is to assist international students with any questions they may have about their visas. But I have also found that when you go into or call Immigration New Zealand, you can get several different answers to the same questions.

How do you think student life in New Zealand compares to student life in the United States? What are the pros and cons of studying here?

First, there is very little competition here until after one leaves the education system, and the graduate work environment is relaxed. This means that if you are self-motivated and know what you need to do, then New Zealand can be a great place to build confidence and achieve a lot with minimal stress. But it also means you need to know what you want to get out of your time here and how to do that, especially if doing a master’s or PhD.

How did experiencing life in New Zealand change your attitude or perceptions when you returned home?

Going back to the United States was a significant culture shock. I found that people talked quickly, moved quickly, wore very little clothes and lots of makeup. I found that America was far more conservative and blinded by propaganda than I had previously realized.

Why did you decide to return to New Zealand for your PhD?

When I was in New Zealand the first time, I fell in love with the country and the man that would become my husband. So, halfway through my master’s degree, we decided to get married and live in one country, together. Initially we looked at programs in the States, but Malcolm read that Landcare Research, a crown research institute, had just won a grant for climate change research. I quickly approached them and received a very positive response. It became obvious that New Zealand would give me access to a higher-caliber supervisory team than in the states, interactions with government agencies, and more freedom.

What would you tell other U.S. students thinking about coming to New Zealand to attend university?

Be prepared. Know what you want to do with your career before getting here and what you need to do to be competitive when you get back to the States. Take every opportunity that comes up and make opportunities, be your own advocate. Be proud of but do not boast about your achievements. I really recommend reading about the “tall poppy syndrome” before you get here. Don’t be afraid to take vacations; your supervisors most likely will believe you need some time off—they do. Finally, try to get in contact with someone living in the city or working in the lab you want to join before you arrive; they can help you find a house, good stores to get the foods you enjoy, and explain what lollies are.

What are your plans after you complete your PhD?

Studying in New Zealand has been very beneficial. I made the most of every opportunity available and came out with a very competitive degree. I am very happy here, but would like to go back to the States if the right position in the right area came up.

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