International Education Week with Miranda Livers

Miranda Livers. Photo credit: Miranda Livers.

This week marks the 19th annual International Education Week (IEW), a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, which celebrates and promotes the benefits of international education and exchange programs worldwide. Initially created so that America could inspire its students to travel abroad, IEW now encourages and supports foreign students interested in making the leap to study in the United States. Today, IEW is celebrated in over 100 countries, including New Zealand.

Join us as we profile kiwi student experiences in America this week. Today we chat with Miranda Livers…

Name – Miranda Livers
Age – 20
University – Willamette University
Location – Salem, OR, USA
Course of Study – Sociology (Major), Anthropology and Classics (Minors)
Award/Exchange Program – Indigenous Exchange Program (Turangawaewae, Pokai Whenua)

What encouraged you to study abroad/study in New Zealand?

I’ve been curious about the world, wanting to travel as much and as far as I could to learn everything I could. Studying abroad has always been on my radar, I just never though I could afford it, and choosing exactly where to go was one of the hardest decisions of my life. Alongside this, I have currently been in the process of reconnecting with my Indigenous heritage. So, when I heard about a program that would allow me to experience a new indigenous culture while also providing me with the opportunity to further my own understanding of what my culture means to me, I couldn’t pass the opportunity up. Upon further research I discovered it was a program I could afford, and that pretty much sealed the deal! Well, that and the fact that it only had one (amazing) option for a destination which made my choice a lot easier!

Tell us about the Indigenous Exchange Program. How did you hear about the award program?

This program is designed to integrate a Native/Indigenous student from another country into the Maori culture while that student simultaneously teaches those involved about their own culture. It is a fantastic program in its first year that could, in the years to come, help in keeping other cultures alive. Otago University has had a partnership with my university for many years, so when this new exchange program was created, my university was able to integrate it with relative ease. After my professors heard about this opportunity they sent an email to the Native and Indigenous Student Union (NISU), a club on campus for students who come from a Native/Indigenous background. I am a member of NISU and received the email; that’s how I learned about this program. After the email I contacted Willamette’s study abroad office for more information and soon enough it led to me submitting my application with enthusiasm and the feeling that this was all a little to good to be true!

Describe your school/program socially and academically. How does it differ from your studies in America?

The main difference between Otago and Willamette in relation to this program is there here in New Zealand I have more responsibilities than just my studies. While I am involved in clubs and other extra-curricular activities at Willamette, they are scheduled around lectures to avoid scheduling conflicts for students. Here, however, the program I am on would occasionally hear of last-minute activities/events taking place that I was invited to, and sometimes they would conflict with my lectures, forcing me to choose between the activities. This definitely wasn’t easy because I wanted to attend everything, but I also had to prioritize my studies. However, I also couldn’t neglect my duties to the program. Even though the activities were fun, and many other students would see attendance as optional, for me this was the main reason I was here: to attend these events, connect with Maori students and the culture, and share my culture in return. I never had to deal with this type of priority split back home.

Another difference is how Otago functions as an institution. Coming from a small university I was not prepared for how large Otago’s campus and student body is. My university doesn’t separate lectures and tutorials like they do here and assigns more homework. Willamette also encourages more in class engagement with the material and professors. It was quite interesting having to adapt to an entirely new and unfamiliar system.

What is it like being an international student on campus in New Zealand?

Interesting to say the least; it felt very multi-dimensional. After a couple weeks I was so familiar with the campus and town that I felt like I was just another first-year student all over again. Plus, I got to know other students in my papers as well as my mentors for my program which made me feel even more integrated into the university. However, I was still adapting to the changes in teaching styles and schedule formats. It was difficult juggling a social life, school, homework, and my program responsibilities all at once. All of this was a constant reminder that while I could almost walk to class with my eyes closed now, I was definitely not from here. This dichotomy aside, the experience was wonderful! I had a lunch with someone almost every week, and it almost always resulted in at least two additional introductions. I was able to meet and network with so many diverse people. I really am thankful I was able to find this program!

What has been your biggest challenge and biggest highlight since living in New Zealand?

My biggest challenge was definitely adapting to how Otago functions while balancing my competing responsibilities. Since Willamette assigns more homework than Otago does I often felt like I had huge amounts of free time, more than I actually did, and would quickly lose track of my time management. I would agree to attend events for my program without realizing how it would later impact my ability to complete an assignment. It was hard to plan for these events though because this is the program’s first year, and I am essentially a guinea pig! The events would more or less pop up and I would have to make a decision about attending. This made my decisions harder because I couldn’t look at a calendar and say, “well I can miss this trip because there is a similar one later that fits my schedule better”. Instead it made every event feel hit or miss, making me want to attend even more. All of this affected my studies as I was so focused on events I took my free time for granted. Without the constant homework assignments (like at Willamette) I quickly lost my ability to focus for long periods of time, as well as my will to get things done. So, when assignments did come around they were always worth a large amount of my grade and due all at the same time. This stressed me out and caused multiple emotional breakdowns due to being unprepared and not having the same support systems in place here as I do back home to help me deal and push through these obstacles. This added the additional layer to my stress: I now had to build a support system from scratch. Thankfully everyone involved in my program was quick to help in every way they could, all I had to do was ask, and I did manage to get through those hardpoints. In short, balancing conflicting responsibilities while adapting to a new environment is quite the challenge!

My biggest highlight would have to be the people I’ve met. Everyone from my kiwi host in my flat to the Aunties overseeing me on this program and the people I met while attending events have all had amazing stories to tell. Each person enriched my experience here and contributed in some way to allowing me a greater understating of myself. Without them I know my time here would not have been the same, and – to be blunt – I don’t know if I would have enjoyed, let alone stayed the entire time. They are absolutely people I will keep in contact with once I return home, and one hundred percent the only reason I need to return to New Zealand again.

What are your plans after the program? How will your time in New Zealand help your career?

Well I haven’t officially decided what I want to do once I graduate. I do know that I would love to work with Native/Indigenous youth and/or help Native/Indigenous communities in some way. How that will look though, I don’t know. I thought about going for a government position within the Bureau of Indian Education or Bureau of Indian Affairs, becoming a high school teacher or university professor, and am even considering applying for law school after this. My future is still a little undecided, but I do know this: my time in New Zealand has taught me interpersonal kills I will utilize anywhere I go. Being able to connect with numerous people from various backgrounds is always a versatile skill to have. This program also taught me how to adapt to demanding situations and navigate new surroundings with little preparation. Regardless of where my career path leads, I know my time here has prepared me for whatever life brings my way next.

What advice can you offer to any students hoping to study abroad or go on exchange in the future?

Be aware of what you’re heading into and don’t accept unless you know you can handle it! This means, make sure you talk with the program leaders to get a thorough understanding of what you’ll face while abroad. Whether that program has been fully formed and has a support system waiting for you or is entirely new and can’t tell you everything about what you’ll experience at least you’ll be aware of what’s going to happen. This way you can make an educated decision about going. You need to be confident you can handle what you’re heading toward. This doesn’t mean handle it alone though.

When I found out my program was still in development even after I submitted my application I knew I would be faced with a lot of uncertainty, surprises, and occasions where I would be forced to quickly adapt. This concoction caused a lot of students to not apply, but I had previous experience in similar circumstances and felt confident I could handle it. Even with my confidence and previous experience I still struggled and had to reach out to my program advisors for help. This is okay! It is always okay to ask for help and going into an exchange knowing you might have to ask for help at some point is not a bad thing. When I say you need to feel confident you can handle it, what I mean is that you need to be sure you have both the skills and the support systems while abroad to see it through. Otherwise your experience will not be fun, and I would hate for any student to regret their time abroad! So, do your homework. Look up where you’re going, inquire into what programs and support systems are in place for you. Make sure you’ll be okay, and then go have fun!!

What is something you wished you would have known before going abroad for study?

I wish I had known exactly how Otago functioned as a university before I arrived. This is definitely something I could have looked into before or after applying. A quick search on their website or an email to my advisors here could have provided the information I would have been looking for. This would have allowed me time to form the correct mindset going in that I had to develop later. I also wish I could have had an outlined itinerary for my program’s events, so I could have planned out my semester better. This couldn’t have happened since my program was still in development even when I arrived. I am pleased to know that they have learned from this year and will try their best to have one for future students.

Did you engage in any extra-curricular activities, and if so, which ones and why?

I tried! I signed up for a couple clubs on campus that I couldn’t stick with due to a lack of time. Between the program’s events and my studies, I didn’t have a lot of extra free time. I was able to attend a couple of Poi performances that my kiwi host was a part of. My program also allowed me to attend a few Marae trips, a couple tourist/sight-seeing excursions, and quite a few dinners/social events to meet everyone involved in supporting and creating this program. If I had been more on top of my schedule I would have been able to be more involved with campus activities!

How has this exchange benefited you as a person?

This program has benefited me as a person because it taught me two very important lessons: It is okay to ask for help, and nothing is more important than my health (mental or otherwise). During the rough patches where my assignments were backed up and I was stressed beyond belief I still found it difficult to ask for help. I felt like I wasn’t being a good student and because of this I didn’t deserve any extensions or help. My support system had to remind me that 1) international students experience this all the time, I wasn’t alone, this wasn’t new, and they were trained for this, and 2) I was in a unique position with this program that caused me to have more responsibilities than the average study abroad student so it was expected I would have challenges I couldn’t face alone. Being in these positions taught me that my feelings toward a situation can skew my perception. It is always good to take a step back and reexamine what’s going on before coming to any definite conclusions. I may have felt like a bad student but taking a step back to look at the whole situation I was reacting to a situation exactly as expected and it was okay, I wasn’t actually being a bad student. This lesson will carry over to any future experiences that may feel overwhelming. I’ll know to take a step back, reexamine what’s going on, and ask for help if I need to.

This program has also benefited me by providing the perfect setting to teach me more about Native/Indigenous world and community similarities and problems. This highlighted how passionate I am about these issues for me and taught me that my people don’t suffer alone. Numerous communities experienced a very similar history of colonization to ours, and because of this we can learn from those who are ahead of us in repatriation and help those who are behind. Helping my community after graduation could be in the form of international networking that allows us to strengthen our resources and expand our ideas on how to keep our culture, language, and history alive.

Finish the sentence:

I believe international education is important because ‘it allows you to explore aspects of your identity you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. You can play out scenarios in your head all you want, but until you’re in those situations for real, you’ll never know how you’ll react, or how you’ll be impacted.”

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Follow #IEW2018 to participate in the virtual conversations happening online around International Education Week.

Additionally, are you thinking about studying in America? There are thousands of opportunities for motivated students! Connect with EducationUSA New Zealand on Facebook (facebook.com/educationusanz) and Twitter (@educationusanz), and be sure to check out our free resources (nz.usembassy.gov) available to help you get started!