Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Samantha Johnson is HECUA’s student blogger for New Zealand: Culture and the Environment this spring. She is a student at Hamline University, majoring in Environmental Studies and Global Studies, minoring in Chinese. Read on for her next post!
I sit in my living room as I write this, occasionally glancing out of the window at the white haze of snowflakes falling onto the already snow-coated ground. Two and a half weeks ago I was looking at an entirely different scene through the kitchen window of my homestay, the backdrop holding rolling golden hills and blue skies. This sudden change in scenery came about when COVID-19 began exponentially spreading late February/early March, and many colleges made the decision to send students home from their study abroad programs. This was quite a distressing period as many students were worried about the risk of international travel, their family’s health, and overall living situations upon returning home. Furthermore, many of us grieved the loss of our opportunity to connect to place and be within the culture we were so invested in learning about.
Students were given the notification that we had to leave no later than March 25th, which gave us under two weeks to prepare for our return home. Looking back, I am thankful we had this precious time left to take in the city and perhaps explore it in ways we wouldn’t have under other circumstances.
I’d like to spend this post reflecting on the time we had in Wellington, cut short, but packed full of beautiful experiences that won’t be forgotten once the rhythm of our new normal at home begins.
Our time in Wellington began early March after our spring break. Our cohort would be spending the rest of our semester in the capital by beginning our internships, home-stays, and independent study projects. During the break, some students utilized the time to travel around the north and south island and some stayed in Wellington to get to know the city better. My friends Cecelia, Anna, and I went to Nelson, which is a lovely seaside town in the south island, known as the sunniest destination in New Zealand. Our goal of the trip was to relax as much as possible, so we spent our time at the beach, exploring local gardens, and walking around the town square. We met up with a few of our friends who were traveling together and drove down to Abel Tasman for a day hike and kayak excursion, which was nothing less than beautiful.
As our break came to a close, we headed back to Wellington by bus and ferry. The next day we were set to meet our homestay families and go our separate ways from the group after living with each other for the past month. I was quite excited for this change because I had been yearning to unpack my suitcase after living out of it for 5 weeks.
We met outside of the Wellington Girls College on a bright Sunday afternoon, anticipating meeting our homestay families and starting a new chapter of the trip. I shared a homestay with my fellow classmate Rowan, and we were met by our homestay host, Rachel. On the car ride home we cheerily got to know each other and discovered we all currently lived or (in Rachel’s case) previously lived in Minnesota. We arrived in Churton Park, a suburb about 25 minutes away from downtown Wellington, comprised of the previously mentioned golden hills with houses weaving throughout the base of the valley. Fiona, our host-sister promptly started carrying up our luggage before we could get to them, and David, our host-dad, met us inside. We further introduced ourselves over dinner and Rowan and I were inducted into their world of orienteering, weaving, and home renovation projects. It was lovely getting to know the Middletons, and they were stellar in not only making us feel at home but showing us what Wellington had to offer. Some of the weekend excursions we ventured on included trips to the market, hikes on local trails, rock climbing, glow worm hunting, and drives through neighboring towns with countless bits of wisdom mentioned about each town only a local would have insight into.
The rest of the weekend was spent getting settled in to our homestay and the next week would serve as an introduction to the city. The first few days were spent receiving a tour of Wellington, answering questions about public transit, and getting familiar with our new classroom at the Innermost Gardens (a community garden space sitting on Mt.Victoria). The time we had in this classroom entailed independent study project (ISP) brainstorming, planning group projects, and spending time in the gardens participating in reflective activities that grounded us in that space. That Wednesday we began our internships, and life felt as if it was rolling in full force.
My internship was with the Wellington City Council working on their Capital Compost marketing strategy, a topic I was intrigued to explore as I have worked on waste education at my school back home. My interest in compost stems from studying the importance of waste diversion. I was very excited to learn more about how composting can be implemented on a citywide scale. The site was located at the southern landfill, and I enjoyed a lengthy commute that toured all the way from Wellington to the coast by Island Bay to arrive there (which provided a scenic view of the ocean for my bus ride). Meeting the staff who worked at the administrative offices was wonderful and there was a mutual excitement of working together. During a normal week, I would spend Monday through Wednesday at the site. I am continuing this internship remotely to carry on my work of researching methods to make Capital Compost more accessible to Wellington residents. The week wrapped up with Thursday and Friday designated for classes and one-on-one check ins with the directors of our program.
Friday, however, was when we first received word that a few students were being sent home by their schools.
Adjusting to this news after being introduced to so many new and exciting elements of what we believed to encompass the rest of our semester was difficult. There was a lot of uncertainty in what classes would look like once at home, and if it would be possible to continue our internships remotely. In a way it was comforting to know that we were all grappling with this at the same time, students and professors, as it brought a sense of solidarity and understanding between us. From that Friday onward, we had roughly a week and a half left in Wellington (some students left earlier than others). That remaining time was spent wrapping up internships, connecting with our homestay hosts, and a final group trip to Castlepoint & Holdsworth Lodge.
At Castlepoint, we stayed in a beachside house that felt reminiscent of the cabins we had stayed in during the beginning field trip portion of our semester. Our time at the lodge was emotional to say the least, as most days were a flurry of rescheduling plane tickets and calling airlines about refunds. The reality of our situation came crashing down in those few days and I was grateful to have the monotonous sounds of waves, wind, and seabirds to soothe my tensions.
Once it became apparent that this was the last time we would all be together as a group, we soaked up each other’s presence by walking on the beach, playing cards, singing, dancing, running, laughing, crying and whatever else we could do in that small seaside town. We closed our time at the lodge by sitting in a circle and speaking about the past 7 weeks candidly. I found it remarkable how everyone was at a different place of processing this change but we all mutually empathized with each other. At the time of writing this I can still feel the colliding emotions present on that day, but overwhelmingly I feel fortunate to have had these experiences and made connections that I will keep with me for a lifetime.