Kiwi, Gabryel Oloapu, talks to us about her U.S. Education Experience

This week marks the 16th Annual International Education Week (IEW), a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education. 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 each day this week. Today we talk with Gabryel Oloapu.

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Name: Gabryel Oloapu

Age: 21

University & Location: Wagner College, New York

Year of study: Junior (Third Year)

Course of Study: Major- Psychology Minor- Marketing

Involvements on Campus:

Women’s Water Polo.

Black Student Union.

Orientation Coordinator Spring & Fall 2015, Spring & Fall 2016.

LEAD Program Assistant Co-ordinator.

PSI CHI – National Psychology Honors Society.

All-American Academic.

Student Athlete Advisory Committee- Secretary.

Student Alumni Association.

Why did you decide to study at Wagner College?

The opportunity to study in the United States and New York city- One of the most amazing cities in the world was a big draw for me. I was looking for an opportunity where not only could I continue playing Water Polo but also gave me the ability to continue my academic studies. Wagner College gave me this opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands. College sports is an amazing opportunity to take advantage of as an athlete from New Zealand because the competition here is on a level that you wouldn’t be able to get at home.

Wagner College, New York. Photo credit: Wagner College.
Wagner College, New York. Photo credit: Wagner College.

Describe your school/program socially and academically.

Wagner College is a small private liberal arts college on Staten Island, New York. It’s well known for its theatre program which is one of the best in the country! The school has 2,500 people which is quite small and my classes reflect that number which is something I really like. Small classes means you get to know most of the other students and can have conversations with your professor, where I am a person not a number, this is important to me and something special and unique to this college. Professors here have office hours where students can go meet with them and discuss any problems that they might be having in their classes. Staten Island is a 30 minute ferry ride from Manhattan! So I’m far enough away from the busy life of the city, but close enough to take advantage of it if I would like to!

Gabryel Oloapu waterpolo. Photo credit: Gabryel Oloapu.
Gabryel Oloapu.

Describe your experience applying for admittance into American universities (e.g., SAT preparation, reaching out to schools, researching funding, writing essays, etc.).

I was lucky enough to be recruited by my Coach through emails. Coach Chris Radmonovich lived and coached in Wellington New Zealand for the Hutt Water Polo Club. He kept connections with people in New Zealand and I was one of the athletes that was offered a place in his programme. My admittance process was lengthier than normal, Wagner accepts both SAT and ACT scores so I took the first available test which was an ACT which is a less common test but I liked it because I could opt out of writing the essay!

Tell us about any interesting cultural tidbits that you noticed in your region of America.

Food is very interesting here… lots of bagels, lots of cheese and lots of peanut butter. Back home we eat more fresh foods and less processed.

It’s also kind of funny being in the city and just people watching. People are constantly in a rush, running and moving with a purpose where as in New Zealand most people whether in cities or towns are very relaxed. Where you can smile and talk to people you don’t know without being considered strange. I’ve also been told that waiters and waitresses always know that I’m foreign because I say thank you too much!

What is it like being an international student on campus? In your community?

I’ve been lucky enough to be in a sports team environment, so as an international student I was already coming into a family where they had my back before I even got here! There seems to be a fascination about New Zealand, the home of The Lord of The Rings, hobbits, running water and questions as to whether New Zealand and Australia are the same place. I love talking about my home, where and who we are, everyone I have met is interested in not just my culture but all the other diverse identities on campus. I have also been lucky enough to work on campus in the Intercultural Advancement office where I run a mentorship program for minority students.

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

Wagner as a private college is a huge investment to make but I’m lucky to have the support of my family, allowing me to play my chosen sport, study and to experience life in New York! My biggest challenge has definitely been being away from my family. My family means everything to me, so I have struggled a lot with not being able to see them every day, but as with all things Samoan the success of one member of the family is the success of the entire family. So I strive every day to make them proud – ensuring I keep up my grades and that I reach the benchmark every semester. My biggest highlight has probably been winning back to back MAAC Conference Championships with my Water Polo team and the opportunity to meet some amazing people.

Have you thought about your plans post-graduation?

I would really like to continue with graduate school here. I’ve been trying to decide if I would like to go for marketing or psychology. I enjoy both so either would be great!

What advice can you offer to New Zealanders hoping to study in the US in the future?

Research all of the universities and colleges that the US has to offer. Unlike New Zealand where there are only a few, there are SO many and you aren’t going to fit into all of them. Each university has it’s pros and cons so make sure you look into all of that before making your decision. The NZD vs USD exchange rate is terrible right now which makes things hard. Depending on the type of student visa you apply for, you may be allowed to work up to 20 hours per week as an international student. Start saving while you’re at home!

How have you managed sports, academics, and social life?

A previous coach told me that there are three things in an athlete’s life and that although there are three, you can only actually have two, academics, sport and social life.. For me, I have always put my academics first. As an athlete it is important to prepare for life after your sport. Water Polo doesn’t have many professional pathways so I’m realistic about how far it’s going to take me. I’m grateful that it has allowed me to get a scholarship to study here but I also know that after this there is only so many more pathways that it can take me on. Water Polo therefore has always come second. Essentially once in college it becomes your job. It’s through my sport that I’m receiving money to be able to attend so it has important value and therefore comes above my social life. Because I heavily focus on academics and water polo, it’s always more difficult to have a social life that is exciting but the advantage of New York city is that if I wanted to- it’s right there. I have become involved in many things on campus as listed above which are my social life, just like my teammates. My team hangs out together a lot we eat most of our meals together so we are all pretty good friends!

For Kiwi students interested in playing sports at an American university, what would you recommend for them to do in order to place themselves in a favorable position?

Practice and Play as much as possible. Get film of you playing your sport and make sure that you are also doing well in school. You come to universities as a Student-Athlete. The student part always should come first and closely followed by the athlete. The better your grades are and the better you are at your sport the more money you are likely to receive so that is always a bonus! Talk to coaches of institutes that you are interested in going to early! That way they know you exist and are interested in studying and playing in the US. If you know anyone that has studied and played over here talk to them and learn about their experiences and maybe they could help connect you with some coaches too!

Finish the sentence: I believe international education is important because…

it allows you to grow out of your comfort zone mentally and physically.

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

International Education Week 2015.
International Education Week 2015.