By Kristina Polk, '12
While preparing to join the AustraLearn program at the University of Auckland, I began to research the Kiwi culture, but could only read the descriptions of "laid back" and "thrill seeking" so many times. I departed the United States mid-February 2011, not too sure what would come of this adventure. While meeting new people is always good fun, it was a bit scary leaving all my friends and family behind for five months.
Moving into the heart of a big city proved to be my first large obstacle. The looming challenges of figuring out the bus system, grocery shopping, adjusting to a constant murmur of noise outside my window, massive crowds on narrow sidewalks, and a student body the size of the University of Michigan packed onto a physical campus not much bigger than Albion, were all equal parts excitement, mystery, and frustration.
Another startling difficulty was in finding locals, even out in social gatherings. At any given time, roughly a quarter of the population is living or extensively traveling overseas. My understanding is that Kiwis do this either for their jobs or many travel following high school. Everyone I talked to were tourists or backpackers visiting for a few weeks or months. It was fascinating to be making connections with people from a myriad of countries in this small region at the bottom of the world.
Another major change was going from Albion classes of around 20 to being one of a hundred or more in lectures. One course I'm taking looks at languages and world views among the Pacific Islands. Another class focuses on the history of the Pacific Islands in the past couple centuries. There appears to be much more intertwining of modern culture with traditional, native customs and languages. Though, when speaking with locals, the country still can have cultural clashes and conflicts like any other nation.
I've had a lot of new experiences: whitewater rafting, caving, canyoning, kayaking with the University canoe club. For the two-week midsemester break, some friends and I rented camper vans and drove the perimeter of the South Island. We hiked near Mt. Cook (the tallest mountain in NZ), Milford Sound, and the Fiordlands (often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World), Fox Glacier, seal colonies, and countless other short hikes in the areas we stopped. The scenery never disappointed.