Alumni Spotlight: Emily Watkins


Emily is a recent graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. who spent part of 2018 working on her studies in Politics and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Emily chose to take the leap and study in New Zealand because she wanted to have a chance to experience her studies in a unique country from a different perspective.

Why did you choose this program?

I had been very indecisive about where I was going to do my study abroad experience at. Being that my University has a strong political science program, they had dozens of options for me to choose from.

When I sat down with my advisor at school, she asked me about what kind of hobbies I was interested in and about my personal preferences of lifestyle, and what things I liked to do in my free time; with all my answers, New Zealand was one of her top suggestions for me, and it was the option that I was the most curious about. But overall, I decided to pick New Zealand because of how unique the country is and how it would offer me a chance to experience a perspective on the world that I was taught very little about in school.

When I thought about having the chance to live in New Zealand, I was so excited, curious and overwhelmed with the number of fun opportunities for adventures that I would have there, and I knew it was the right fit.

What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

My program was a direct enroll program, so I entered Victoria University as an independent student, not with a group of students from my home university.

Most of the logistical work was done by me; arranging my visa, applying for housing and enrolling in classes, buying my flights to and from, etc. But my home university assisted us with the application process (as a direct enroll student, I had to apply to Vic directly essentially like a transfer or exchange student would and they had to accept or deny my application), so my abroad advisor assisted us with getting our documents and our applications in and sent to the right place on time since my University has an established relationship with Victoria U.

Once we were selected for the program by the team at Victoria International- the program is not very competitive; you just have to meet academic performance standards and have the ability to pass a visa background check - we had a pre-departure meeting with the AU Abroad staff in which they gave us a list of things we would have to complete a few weeks before we would leave for New Zealand.

The process of making all the arrangements can be very stressful as you will have thousands of questions, so having a sort of "check-list" for what I needed to have done and when helped me work all of the extra pieces into my busy schedule as a student.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

If I had any advice, I would say to make sure that you do complete ample research about the country and its customs, things to do there, the school's reputation or class-structures before you go ahead and apply. I decided to narrow down my options to three programs that stood out to me, and from there I weighed the pros and cons of each, the cost of each, and timeline and variability I had to my own discretion for each program before I made my final choice. Obviously, you want to play it smart and safe, but all that being said, do not be afraid to get out of your comfort zone a little!

All of my friends at my university were also applying for study abroad programs around the same time as me, and it would have been very easy for me to have played it extra safe and chosen a program that everyone else was doing so I could stay in the comfort of my pre-established bubble. But I firmly believe that taking the bigger leap of faith and choosing to go to Victoria, a program where I did not know anyone else upon my application and arrival, was the best decision that I have ever made for myself. And, as scary as it sounds to go move overseas essentially alone, I made so many lifelong friends and I had the time of my life meeting new people.

Victoria sets things up very nicely so you have ample opportunities to meet new friends. And the extra bit of independence from the crowd gave me more of the curiosity, the bravery and the confidence to try new experiences on my own! I now have much better faith in myself and my abilities because I did the "scarier" thing and followed my gut!

If Victoria is the program for you, my advice is to not be afraid to participate, take some risks, take your classes seriously, but also leave room for you to have lots of fun adventures in your free time. I also recommend, if you are able, to leave room in your class schedule to take one fun, unique or locally interesting class! I was already an avid photographer but took my first class in New Zealand, and it was so cool! But if your class regime has to follow your degree path strictly, take the time to join a club or two on campus! I joined a Maori-language club specifically for international students and I had an amazing time learning from other Maori students at the uni once a week!

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

The average week consists of a structured class schedule, after school free time to have fun/study/see friends or play sports on a rec league, and home time. I lived in University Hall so I was in a student share-house in Kelburn just about 8 minutes from campus.

As someone who is very academically focused, I make school one of my priorities during the week.

I had classes 4 days a week, and I started my day around 9:15-10am with classes every one of those days. I would wake up regularly around 8-8:30 get ready, go to class(es), come home and have lunch, (or meet my housemate for lunch on campus or just down the hill in the CBD), go back to campus for my evening classes, and then spend the evenings doing work, hanging with friends, running errands.

At night, my housemates and I typically gathered in our living room to chat for a while before bed. Thursday and Friday evenings were when we would usually go out downtown in the evenings. We left weekends for mostly fun!

Saturday was typically the day we would plan hikes or short trips outside the city for. On Sunday is when we did most of our shopping and chores, having the farmers market run usually around 10-11am on Sunday and reserving the evening to catch up on work or prepare for the next day's classes.

The average student should have a decent amount of free time to work with for all different kinds of fun. There is not really an "average" activity I found for anyone, in particular. Everyone had different or shared hobbies like music, fishing or water sports, going on runs, hikes or playing intermural sports, reading, art, photography, you name it! It depends on the preferences of the people, but all of my friends definitely had time to enjoy themselves and get connected with the community while also being a full-time exchange student.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I would definitely say my biggest fear going into the program was that I would be too shy or too tunnel-visioned on one thing and miss out on getting to actually take advantage of my time there and all the wonderful things New Zealand has to offer.

I have always been one to over-stress myself over academics. I really want to succeed and do well in school, but sometimes I get so focused on that and really start to over-kill it so much that I have missed cool opportunities that came up. I became very afraid early on that I would disappoint myself and leave without really feeling that I had lived to my best ability with the time I had there. I would say that I really learned how to forcefully budget my time while I was there so I had the time and the ability to do well in school, but I could also go out and have fun and explore around the city and the surrounding areas without being stressed about completing my school work.

I really found that the fear of missing out on these opportunities was all in my head and that the best way to not miss out was to take advantage of opportunities that came up in front of me and to not be afraid to try something new or to get out of my comfort zone. And if you research the city and other things nearby, you have the ability to make a list of things that you want to accomplish, and that gives you a daily reminder to budget your time wisely so you can see what you want and try new things and have all the experiences you will remember for the rest of your life without so many regrets.

What did you like the most in your trip?

If I had to pick four places or activities/things to do in or around the Wellington Region that I am very happy that I took advantage of while I was there, I would say that they are;

  1. All of the amazing food: definitely take the time to go on a little "food tour" of the city while you are there. My friends and I found SO MANY great spots to grab a bite, I honestly still daydream about some of the meals I had there. The night markets and underground markets are also really cool places to find authentic international food, and the weekend farmers' markets are the best way to save money on beautiful fresh produce.
  2. Go to a rugby game! - I had so much fun learning a bit about rugby and having the chance to watch some professional rugby at Westpac Stadium is really cool. The All Blacks game was definitely my favorite, but I also had so much fun at a Wellington Hurricanes game, it was like being immersed in the local sports culture, which was a cool comparison to my hometown's sports culture!
  3. Enjoy all the hidden gems that the local parks and wildlife reserves have to offer! The Wellington Region is blessed with spectacular scenery. From the amazing landscapes that are the Putangirua Pinnacles and Cape Palliser, about two hours drive away from Wellington, showcasing some of the scenery seen in the Lord of the Rings, to Red Rocks Wildlife Preserve and the Wellington Skyline Trail. From the beautiful beaches and coasts of Oriental Bay, Scorching Bay and beyond, to nature preserves like Zealandia and the Botanical Gardens, you have so many beautiful landscapes right there for you to explore. Mount Victoria and its amazing city-scape at sunset, is just about 25 minutes from the Kelburn campus! If you do not have the ability to endlessly travel around the country, then I would at least recommend visiting these nearby places!
  4. Visit the city itself and learn something new while you are there! The city itself is really cool and has a lot of character. I was lucky enough to have classes at the Te Aro campus in town twice a week, which allowed me to spend more time in the city and explore a bit. Wellington has a really amazing character, it is all heart and soul of the people there. If you can't get into the city during the week, there are always activities happening in town and they like to post about them online and on social media, or you can make some fun on your own! I found a scavenger hunt sort of activity that is app-based and a friend and I ran around the city all day trying to find all these interesting and historic spots that it marks out for you. It was a really cool way to get to know the fast facts about Welligotn while also getting an intimate look at the city itself!