Though the Earth may shake them : Students and study abroad programs reflect on the earthquake in Christchurch

Posted by Sarah Barry

The 10 Skidmore students studying in Christchurch, New Zealand this past spring were confronted with a new challenge during their travels abroad. On Tuesday, Feb. 22, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3 hit the Canterbury region.

While the earthquake disrupted the carefully planned semesters of several Skidmore students, students adapted and the University of Canterbury and study abroad programs were prepared to deal with the effects of the quake.

"Even prior to the first major earthquake to strike Christchurch on Sept 4 2010, the University of Canterbury had a very extensive emergency preparedness programme, which included trained staff, facilities and resources specifically directed toward dealing with a major critical incident on campus," said Dr. Nello Angerilli, pro-vice chancellor of International and Student Services at the University of Canterbury. The university increased its preparedness program after the earthquake in September 2010.

Preventing any harm to students is the first goal of University of Canterbury's Emergency Management Plan. The University of Canterbury then made contacting students one of the immediate priorities after the earthquake.

The University emailed each student, sent a webform and provided the number to a direct line where students could contact the University. "We asked each student if [he or she was] safe, uninjured and in acceptable accommodation, and if so we urged [him or her] to tell [his or her] classmates to contact us directly, then register with their nearest consulate and also to contact a family member overseas to let them know that they were ok," Angerilli said.

"Within days, we had an amazing response and had created a very complete list of students and their whereabouts, which we were then able to use to respond to the enquiries of emergency services, consulates and family members," Angerilli said.

Ellie Nichols '13 was one student studying in Christchurch at the time of the earthquake. "We were warned about earthquakes, and they say it's a possibility. I was aware that it happens, but it's not front and center at all on your mind," Nichols said.

Ellie was just arriving at class when the earthquake hit. "A girl next to me dove under a table, so I did the same. In reality it only lasted about 20 seconds. When it was over everyone looked at each other like ‘what just happened?' The faculty members started to evacuate us to the parking lot. I kept asking if the worst was over," Nichols said.

Ellie studied through the IES (International Education of Students). The earthquake undoubtedly changed her plans for her semester abroad. "IES announced that it would no longer have a program for the spring 2011. IES then put together some options for students. I've done a lot of traveling, and I did a lot of research, so I knew that I wanted to go to Christchurch specifically. I felt it more of a cultural identity than some of the other cities," Nichols said.

IES also has pre-existing plans in preparation for natural disasters and other potential issues that occur throughout the semester. "Last academic year alone we managed 188 significant levels of crises worldwide (the Arab spring uprisings, political demonstrations, university and transportation and labor strikes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic ash, etc.) not including the daily health matters that impact students, be they attending school in the U.S. or abroad," said Mary Dwyer, doctoral president and chief executive officer of IES Abroad.

"In the case of the Christchurch earthquake, our students were provided the means to evacuate at IES Abroad's expense," Dwyer said. The University of Canterbury advised its study abroad partners to consider other options for students to ensure a full semester's study abroad experience before it was too late to transfer to other Universities. IES then set out to move students to the program at the University of Auckland.

"Our director of our Auckland program collaborated closely with the director of our Christchurch program to get all of our Christchurch students moved to the University of Auckland. The University of Auckland on a day's notice agreed to accept all of the IES Abroad students and make arrangements for their classes and housing," Dwyer said.

Jon Reeves '12, who was also in Christchurch, studied with Frontiers Abroad. "Our program got in touch with all our families and told us we were going to a field camp," Reeves said. Reeves stayed in New Zealand, but moved with the program to Wellington, New Zealand. "We stayed at the field camp for close to a week and, at that point, the program did an amazing job organizing all of our classes."

Reeves experienced both challenges and benefits with the move. "There were a lot more Americans in Christchurch. We moved from the equivalent of Scribner Village to living in the dorms with first semester 17- and 18-year-old students. The building had strict rules and wasn't the best environment for socializing. We were kind of the weird American kids, but it forced us to really put ourselves out there," Reeves said.

Aurora Pinkey-Drobnis '12 also moved to Wellington after the earthquake. "I thought it was a great opportunity to experience a natural disaster as a geology student and to see the ways [with[ which it was dealt. I did a project on the earthquake and the media's response to the disaster. I loved Wellington - I liked the move," Pinkey-Drobnis said.

Nichols ended up leaving New Zealand and returning home to Denver, CO where she did some free-lance fashion work and secured an internship with a fashion photo production company called Brachfeld-Paris, founded by a Skidmore alumnus. The other nine students who started the semester in Christchurch continued at other universities in New Zealand. "I want to note that Skidmore Study Abroad was so supportive and reasonable and I'm very appreciative," NIchols said.


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