A look at study abroad in Christchurch New Zealand: The aftermath of the earthquake for Skidmore students in New Zealand

Posted by Kelsey Nichols

The devastating effects of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 65 people in Christchurch, New Zealand in February 2011 were featured on news programs across the globe. The effects of this disaster reached closer to home than many imagined, as some of Skidmore's own students were only minutes from the epicenter of the quake.

Ellie Nichols, '13 an International Affairs major, was sitting in her New Zealand politics class when the quake suddenly hit. "The ground started shaking and I heard a deep rumbling. Papers were falling and tables were shifting. The girl next to me dove underneath her desk and then I did the same thing," Nichols said. 

Nichols had been a student at the University of Canterbury through the Institute for the International Education of Students program, or IES, for only one day before life in New Zealand was disrupted. After the quake, aftershocks continued to rattle the town with enough strength to make cars sway on their axles.

Approximately 90 percent of Canterbury's campus infrastructure was completely or at least partially destroyed. There was no clean drinking water, and students were not able to use ATMs, which contributed to a growing sense of chaos on campus.

Nichols was lucky enough to have been traveling through New Zealand for a month before classes started and she had made some friends in Nelson, a city about four hours from Christchurch.

Her friends were kind enough to come pick her up as well as some of her friends. She was brought to an area away from the aftershocks and "housed in a school bus that was filled with mattresses and surfboards," Nichols said.

The IES program was not created to deal with situations of such huge proportions and three days after the earthquake, the University sent out an announcement that there would be no more classes for the semester.

"I was lucky to have an exit strategy with one of my local friends, however I think IES abroad should have handled the situation better. Those who didn't have an immediate exit strategy had to spend one, maybe two nights in Christchurch while the aftershocks continued. Eventually IES organized an escape to a dude ranch retreat center in the South, but this was quite delayed," Nichols said. 

Some students were given the opportunity to transfer to the University of Auckland, but there were limited  options besides making the trip home. Skidmore's insurance policy for abroad studies is comprehensive and Skidmore students were fully reimbursed. Other IES students were not so lucky and have not been reimbursed at all.

Jon Reeves '12 was also in Christchurch and faced changes to his abroad experience. "I transferred from Christchurch to Wellington. The curriculum was basically the same, I just had to change a few classes. I had more amenities in Christchurch, whereas I lived in a dorm in Wellington, but the main difference was that I was living with Americans before the move," Reeves said. 

"I had to get used to a city where I was starting out later in the semester and only had a few months to be there," said Reeves of the move. "It was difficult networking in a foreign country, finding rides and friends with similar interests." "Because I wasn't with Americans after the move it turned out to be much more a test of putting myself out there and facing rejection. It was definitely more of a challenge, but also more of an adventure," Reeves said.

The semester did not go to waste for Nichols, but she decided not to stay in New Zealand. Nichols went back home to Denver, CO and did some freelance fashion work, which culminated in her securing an internship in Paris for a fashion photo production company, Brachfeld-Paris, which was founded by a Skidmore Alumnus.

The natural disaster in NZ has not deterred Nichols from going abroad. She plans on heading to Florence in the spring of 2012.

"Paris was an incredible experience. Although I was bummed to lose my semester in Christchurch, I wouldn't have been able to seize the Paris opportunity if I was still abroad," Nichols said.  

Nichols still encourages people to study in New Zealand. "It's just so incredibly beautiful. I mean, it's where the Lord of the Rings is filmed which is pretty awesome."

"One thing to watch is how Christchurch will rebuild its beautiful city center. Some say this might be the opportunity to see what real, sustainable development looks like. It is a rare occasion to be able to rebuild a city with the technological developments of the 21st century and Christchurch may become an example of this high tech development," Nichols said. 

Nichols hopes to return to New Zealand someday. "Part of me hopes to plan a fantastic destination wedding there." Evidently, the appeal of New Zealand can outlast even an earthquake.  

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