NZ Scholarship recipient Huong Do (Vietnam) graduated with a Master of Sustainable Business (MSusBus) with Distinction from the University of Otago earlier this year. This is an achievement in itself, but add parenting; living far from home; working remotely; English as a second language and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these ‘extra’ factors could have been enough to alter the course that Huong Do was on, but she continued on her journey and along the way discovered a sense of belonging, a resilience she did not know she had and educational and life skills that will improve not only her own life, but those that she comes in contact with in the future.
Question 1: Where did you first hear about the University of Otago? Why did you choose Otago over other universities in New Zealand and/ or the rest of the world?
On an autumn day in August 2018, when searching in vain for a course that was most relevant to my professional career as a Corporate Social Responsibility Specialist, I unexpectedly found the line “Master of Sustainable Business at the University of Otago, New Zealand” – this was the first-time I had heard of the University of Otago. I chose the University of Otago over other universities and the rest of the world because they suited my educational needs the most and I was very interested in the course offered. I also declined one offer from the University of Waikato (my second preference for NZ Government Scholarship) and the University of Auckland (for ADB-Japan Scholarship Program). I had a feeling of “belonging” when I read about Otago and the selected course’s description was exactly what I had been looking for.
Question 2: How long did you study at Otago? Did anything about life at Otago surprise you?
I spent 13 months completing the MSusBus at the University of Otago from Feb 2020 to the end of Feb 2021. Due to the complexity of the Covid-19 situation however, my stay in Dunedin was extended till mid of May 2021.
Prior to my departure from home, many friends told me that it was going to be extremely challenging with an intensive one-year studying schedule; a remote working position; being a full-time mother and in such a strange city in a land far away from my home country. But I proved myself in overcoming these potential challenges and being open to new experiences. What surprised me most was not the incredible beauty of the city, the food of a western country, the cold weather of the South Island, or the intensiveness of the coursework, but the people. I prepared myself to meet new people with different characteristics, mindsets, and lifestyles. I kept reading about Kiwi’s friendliness and kindness, but it turned out to be beyond my expectations. From my first day at Otago and over the course of my time there I never felt like I was treated as a stranger – I was welcomed and encouraged by both the University and residential communities. I felt happy every time I walked along the street and received greetings from people who I did not know. The kindness of Dunedinites gave me feelings of warmth and acceptance enabling me to feel secure, even when it times were tough.
Question 3: How did you find the learning/teaching environment at Otago? How is it different to what you have experienced at your previous university (either at home or in another country)? What was your experience with your lecturers/ supervisors like? How was your experience with other Otago staff and people (besides your lecturers/ supervisors)?
I found the learning environment at Otago extraordinarily rich and positive. As a post-graduate student engaging with a small number of classmates and lecturers, I had a precious opportunity to observe and gain insights about the learning environment. Firstly, the program is designed and launched in a student-centred manner. The lecturers did not solely lead us – we could participate and even design the way the knowledge was delivered rather than just having to memorise it. It was my great honour to learn from experienced and wonderful lecturers who all promoted the important role of creativity and critical thinking engaging all students in exploring ideas and issues, challenging traditional assumptions and handling complexity. COVID-19 restriction measures meant we couldn’t continue in the classroom but our lecturers and the University in general quickly responded and adopted many new methods to engage and continue with our learning.
I really would like to highlight the resourceful nature of the lecturers at Otago. They kept their minds open, valued diverse kinds of students all with differing ages, professional and cultural backgrounds. Coming from a developing country and using English as a second language meant that in the early days I was very concerned and anxious that I would fall behind. This feeling did not last as my thoughts, opinions and ideas were all respected and encouraged by the lecturers. As a result, I could identify my place in the class and gain the confidence to work on my ideas.
Otago has an exemplary learning and teaching environment. Academic and applied/ practical knowledge, skills, motivation, and the mental health of students were all positively taken care of.
Aside from my lecturers and supervisor, my main engagement with other Otago people was mainly around International Student Advisors, Ask Otago, and cafeteria staff. Typing these lines reminds me of all the grateful memories I have. During the hard time of isolation due to COVID-19 restrictions, the cold of winter or the pressure during the thesis writing period, I was not far from the warmth of emails, smiles and greetings from them all.
Question 4: While studying at Otago, what were other activities that you engaged/ experienced (Part time job? Travelling? Volunteering? Tutoring? Etc). Please share with us any thoughts/observations that you gained from these experiences.
2020 was a special year for every person living, working, and studying in New Zealand. Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic many people could not fulfil goals and objectives. But thanks to the safe and effective measures put in place to control the situation in New Zealand, I felt still luckier than many students and citizens in other countries. While studying at Otago, other than spending most of my time completing my studies I was still able to handle a job in Vietnam, travel around, learn new knowledge and skills as well as engage in some light volunteer work.
As a student enrolling in the Master of Sustainable Business I always found the relevant opportunities to enhance and apply my knowledge of sustainable development. By maintaining my job as a Senior Compliance/ Sustainability Officer I could create links between the theories, frameworks, models, methods, case studies and my real work with my employer . At the same time, I could turn my occupational experiences into valuable input and examples for the classroom.
Regarding travel, trips end but memories stay forever. Although I could not travel alot due to the limitation of time and effects of the pandemic, I was inspired by the New Zealand tourism industry. Among a variety of destinations, Queenstown and Auckland were my son’s and my favourite places. While Queenstown reminded me of a small but famous tourist oriented town in my home country, the vibrant and crowded Auckland attracted my son. No matter how far and long our trips were, we both felt the beauty of NZ’s landscape and the warmth and friendliness from the people we met.
Over summer I had opportunities to attend cooking and bread making classes, as well as learning how to compost in our flat/ house/ office with the ‘Summer at Otago’ program. Volunteer work at the Community Garden also brought me new experiences. I was grateful to take part in these programs and activities as they all related to my interests. They not only made my stay in Otago more memorable but also equipped me with insights and knowledge which I can apply when I returned home.
Question 5: Overall, how did you find the ‘culture’ of the students, staff, and people that work at the University of Otago?
From my perspective, everyone studying, working, and serving at the University of Otago successfully shapes its uniquely diverse and consistent culture. I was impressed reading about the University’s history and was amazed upon my arrival at the campus on the first day. The atmosphere around the campus was extraordinary – relaxed and comfortable yet the spirit of people was very strong, focused, and positive. As the oldest university in the NZ Otago’s culture was rich with traditional values, but the modern aspects of the University are applied and promoted by students and staff. I read about the University’s four core values, and I observed these values were present in the students and staff I met. The respect, integrity, curiosity, and community values were reflected through the words and actions of the people I encountered, no matter what level of management, where they were from, what they were studying – all were working to contribute to the development and success of the University.
Question 6: What were the standout features of living and studying at Otago?
I personally love Otago as it suits my ideal for living and studying so much. Dunedin is a smaller and less populated city than my home city, it is not as crowded or noisy. It is peaceful yet convenient so a student can focus on studying while at the same time enjoy the beauty of nature and people.
Question 7: Overall, did Otago Uni meet your expectations? Tell us why or why not?
The University of Otago completely met my expectations. The fear of not finding a feeling of “belonging” prior to my arrival well and truly abated during my time here. Although I lived far away from home, the University of Otago and Dunedin became my second home and I felt fulfilled both academically and socially. It was not only about the academic quality, but Otago also widened my graduate employability as I gained knowledge for interpersonal and conceptual skills, strategic planning, and independent judgement. Furthermore, Otago will always stay in my mind for its beauty – magnolia blooms, cherry blossoms, moody clouds and sustaining rain, I felt such pride being in one of the world’s most beautiful campuses. I also appreciated the communication given – even during the tough times of Covid-19, I could see the quick responses, firm decisions, clear and positive communication from the University management and staff. This helped me to better plan, stay strong, and be positive that together we would overcome the hardship.
I still remember at the end of NZAID scholars’ integration week, Associate Professor Vivienne Anderson let us write a letter to ourselves in the near future, to describe our expectations and desires while we were at Otago. When my journey was nearing its end I had the chance to meet her and other scholars, where I received the letter I had written upon the start of my journey. I felt amazed. I had a good performance in my learning, become acquainted with study and the lifestyle of Otago. I also spent precious moments with my companion, teaching him and learning from him at the same time.
When you’re back home:
Question 8: How would you describe the University of Otago to somebody who was thinking of studying as an international student at Otago?
When thinking of studying as an international student at the University of Otago, I am sure that you have searched and read a lot of valuable information posted on the University’s website and other trusted sources. I hope this advice is helpful to you – you can trust what you read and heard about Otago as it is true. Follow your heart as it can lead you to an incredible place. Finally, do not hesitate to challenge yourself at Otago – you will have one of the most wonderful times in your life there.
Question 9: What is the best memory you will take home with you from your time at the University of Otago?
Every moment at Otago is memorable and beautifully captured through my camera and my memory. I also have my companion reminding me of many events that happened during the time we spent at Otago together. However, if it is a must to choose the best memory, I will talk about the Scholarship Completion Ceremony held last October. During 2020 many classes were transferred to an online platform, many events were virtually hosted, and a lot of ceremonies were affected or cancelled due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Completion Ceremony was successfully organised just one day after my very last class of the final semester – an important milestone for our journey. Thanks to the NZ Government, MFAT and the University of Otago I travelled so far to pursue my dream. The ceremony then gave me an official opportunity to present my gratitude to them and my loved ones even though they could not attend in person. Being the only Vietnamese scholar and wearing our traditional costume at the ceremony, I could not hide my tears and mixed feelings. I was extremely happy and fulfilled for doing well in my classes, but I was also sad at the same time as the time to say goodbye to Otago was coming. The event also gave me a precious opportunity to meet other scholars and congratulate them on their amazing achievements.
Question 10: How do you apply the study & experience you received here to your current work? Has your experience of studying at Otago had a positive impact on your life now, at home? If you take a look at yourself before and after going to NZ, what is the biggest change that you notice?
Since I mentioned above (Question 4) about my application of knowledge into the work and vice versa during the course, it should be noted that I did not need to wait till the end of my study and return. It meant a lot to me and my employer as my academic experience became more practical, and applied. My study at Otago has levelled up my understanding and skills on research, I was terrified about research before, but Otago positively changed that so that I could better handle my work.
My experience of studying at Otago is positively impacting my life back in my home country – like many overseas students studying abroad, I learnt how to better manage my daily routine, overcome challenges, and explore new aspects of myself. I had always assumed that it was too difficult to achieve work-life balance no matter how hard I tried – but looking at myself now, I am proud to have gained positive results from working, studying, and enriching my personal life.
The biggest change that I have noticed since studying at the University of Otago is the concept of the word resilience. I paid attention to this term when my classmates and I discussed climate adaptation and mitigation during the class of “Developments in Environmental Management” and I have been thinking about it ever since then. I then came to realise how I felt/behaved when I was when coping with changes or difficulties – since my time at Otago my anxiety lessened and I felt more calm and confident. I concluded this in my speech given at the Completion Ceremony with a thanks to all for helping me to become a better person who is more and more resilient day by day.
Nicky Richardson is an International Marketing Coordinator at the University of Otago. With degrees in music and marketing, both from Otago, she is passionate about education, and the places it can take you.