Choosing IFSA: Why the Program Was Right for Me
When it came time for me to choose how and where I wanted to study abroad, the possibilities were quite literally endless. My university allows students to study via a “Duke-In” program, an approved program, or you can petition for a specific program. The infinite options available overwhelmed me at first as I did not originally have a specific place or program in mind. I decided to study in New Zealand after talking with countless representatives at my school’s Global Education Fair and our Global Education Office. The universities in New Zealand provided what I was looking for both academically and non-academically. After choosing to study in New Zealand, it was time for me to make another decision: which program should I study through? Since Duke does not have a “Duke-In New Zealand” program nor did I know anyone else going, I found comfort in choosing to study abroad with a third-party program.
All of the university and program representatives I talked to were very informative, but I found Hannah, the IFSA program adviser for Australia and New Zealand, to be so helpful in answering all of my many questions. I asked about the differences in universities, how IFSA works, and the basic logistics around studying abroad in New Zealand. She took the time to walk me through my options and helped me find course schedules and syllabi for the courses I was interested in. Also, before I even left America, IFSA staff sent emails with important information, a suggested packing list, and had us write down our goals for the upcoming semester. All of these little things IFSA did made me feel more secure in my decision to study halfway across the world, a feeling that became a defining feature in my abroad experience.
Welcome to New Zealand
The thought of walking up to a group of people and not knowing anyone, absolutely terrifies me. Yet, somehow, I found myself in this exact situation while halfway across the world. Getting off the plane in the Auckland airport, I was filled with a mixture of nervousness and excitement. I made my way through baggage claim, customs and eventually to the spot we were told to meet. My flight was one of the last to land, so by time I had put my baggage in the transport truck, it seemed as if everyone had already met each other. Terrified of inserting myself into a conversation, I stood back away from the crowd of people and just made small talk with a girl who had also just arrived. Standing there in that moment, I was nervous about what the next six months might be like. Would I make friends or would I just be the girl standing in the back for the entirety of the semester?
Once everyone landed in Auckland, we all hopped on a bus and drove an hour north of Auckland to a YMCA camp where we had a week long orientation. Initially, I resorted to my normal coping mechanism of quietly and passively being present in group activities and information sessions. However, the more we participated in team-building activities, the more I got to know other students and the more I began to open up. Orientation allowed me to start to get to know some of other students who would be studying at the University of Otago before we were spread out across the city of Dunedin.
IFSA became like a surrogate mom while abroad. This was really comforting to have when my actual mom was halfway across the world! When we first arrived in Dunedin, IFSA staff took us all to our respective flats and ensured that we had no problems with our new living arrangements before leaving us to be on our own. Although we were no longer together all the time, I found that after getting over the initial adjustment to a new country, new place and new people, I was able to build upon the initial friendships formed in orientation once in Dunedin.
Learning Beyond the Classroom
The IFSA learning plan was a really great way for me to make sure that I was continuing to get the most out of my abroad experience. Although I do not normally write down my goals, talk about my goals with others, or reflect back on them, I am really glad IFSA had me do all of these things. My check-ins helped me remember why I chose to study in New Zealand and what I hoped to get out of my experience. The learning plan encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try new classes, meet new people, and do new things so that I could achieve both my academic and non-academic goals. My learning plan also reminded me of things that I feared, provided a space for me to talk about such, and revealed to me that my initial fears were actually not as bad as I had expected.
While I valued meeting with Brogan, the Student Services Coordinator, to look over my learning plan, I really loved stopping by the weekly catch ups she would host. Brogan had tons of experience and knowledge on Māori culture, things to do around New Zealand, and life in general. Although she had so much to share with us, Brogan always asked about us: how we were doing, how our classes were going, and what our plans were for the weekend. I usually keep to myself, thinking that my life outside the logistics did not matter to IFSA. However, chatting with Brogan reassured me that IFSA staff thought about us as more than learning plans, academics, and logistics. This made me feel more comfortable going to IFSA staff with any problems I encountered, regardless of if it had anything to do with IFSA.
The excursions that IFSA planned let me see parts of the city and country that I otherwise may not have. They also taught me valuable history and background on the culture of different groups of New Zealanders, something that proved to be important when interacting with others. Additionally, IFSA planned this big overnight boat cruise through the Doubtful Sound (one of the Fiords on the South Island) which was absolutely amazing! We relaxed on the boat, went kayaking, and even spotted a few dolphins! It was the first time everyone in IFSA had spent a weekend together since orientation so the excursion provided a great opportunity to catch up with everyone while enjoying the beauty of New Zealand!
Ultimately, I decided to study abroad with IFSA because the support IFSA provided in choosing a program, classes, and taking care of other logistics allowed me to focus on preparing on what I personally feared the most: meeting new people in a new environment. Everyone has different personalities, different opportunities, different experiences, and different fears when it comes to studying abroad. But, I found that in the world of possibilities, IFSA helped to make the study abroad experience enjoyable for everyone, even an introvert like me.