A Sky Full of Stars in New Zealand

by Melissa Nix

Grace Singer, a New Zealand semester student, reflects on life in Dunedin and the difficulties of returning home abruptly from such an experience. 

I remember the day I found out that I got the Gilman Scholarship to go abroad. I read the email about 6 times before believing it. Many thoughts floated through my brain: what if they accidentally emailed me? What if I misunderstood the email? I didn’t want to believe it too quickly. It wasn’t that I wasn’t confident in my abilities; it was more that this has been a dream for me. I’ve always wanted to spend a semester abroad, and getting a scholarship to be able to afford it was unbelievable. I was so excited and wanted to tell everyone about receiving the Gilman. I thought to myself: You are going to New Zealand… this is happening; it’s going to be a reality. 

My name is Grace Singer and I am a junior at Juniata College studying bio-psychology. I was born in Michigan, grew up in the United Arab Emirates until high school, and then moved to Pennsylvania to continue my education. My parents and my only brother still live in the United Arab Emirates, which I go visit once a year. Since my freshman year of college, I always knew I wanted to study abroad. I made it a goal of mine to spend a semester abroad during my junior year. I wanted to study abroad in a place that would allow me to take classes that would count for my genomics certificate at Juniata, and I found that in the South Island of New Zealand at the University of Otago. Before conducting my research on New Zealand, I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it is so far away. The more research I did, the more I fell in love with this country, and I knew that I had to spend my semester there. I wanted to learn more about the Maori language and culture as well as explore New Zealand’s beautiful nature. 

Having to choose one thing that stood out to me from my program is hard. I made so many amazing memories. I had a great flat with two American flatmates and a Kiwi host. My flatmates became a family to me and flat 693 was a place I called home. In addition to my flat-mates I had a great group people in my Amizade-BCA program. Our group consisted of five American students that went on adventures and explored the beauty of New Zealand together. We got to see lakes, rivers, beaches, penguins, kiwi birds, and mountains together. We also went on many hikes that I loved. Two of the most memorable trips we went on were the trip to Lake Wanaka and the trip to Mount Cook. I’ve never seen views as beautiful as the ones at Lake Wanaka and Mount Cook. It’s unreal how gorgeous nature is in New Zealand.

I’ll never forget the day I found out our program was shutting down. That was on the morning of our last trip to Mount Cook. I had spent the night before looking at my schedule of trips and re-decorating my room. It was a nightmare. My worst fear just became a reality. It felt like my study abroad experience was taken away from me. It wasn’t fair. I spent the whole bus ride on the way to Mount Cook crying. After all the hard work and the nights spent writing essays for scholarships and filling out applications, I didn’t want to believe that I had to leave just like that. I was devastated. That bus ride was so quiet: for the first time the five of us had nothing to say. That day we made the decision to make the most of our last trip.

After a long day of adventures, when it finally was dark outside, we went stargazing near Mount Cook. I don’t have the words to describe how magical it was. Antonio, our driver, brought out his guitar and played a couple of songs while we all sang along and watched the stars. Ashley, our program director, pointed out a couple of stars to us while telling us fun facts and making us laugh. Thinking about that night makes me tear up every time. We got to see a couple of shooting stars too. I took some pictures of the sky with my phone, so they aren’t great quality, but I’ll still share:

That night meant so much to me that I got Mount Cook tattooed with stars on my side when we got back from our trip. I went with two of my friends from my program and each one of us got a tattoo.

It was really hard for me to leave, especially because I couldn’t go back to my parents—the UAE closed their borders—and Juniata didn’t want any students on campus, so I had to find a place to stay. Luckily, my flatmate Hannah offered to have me over at her place in Seattle, Washington. 

Grace (left) and Hannah in Seattle

Looking back at it today, I am so grateful for everything that New Zealand has given me. The friendships I made, the unforgettable memories, the tasty foods, and the best ice cream. I can’t lie and say that I am not upset by everything that has happened, but I can definitely look at all the positives that came out of this experience. I never would have thought that I would share a flat with a person abroad and end up quarantining with them in Washington (I’ve never been to WA before this!) I am so blessed to have met such wonderful people that would open up their homes and welcome me in the times of a global pandemic. 

My advice to students going through these hard times is to give yourselves time to heal. You are not alone in this. These are hard times on everyone so it’s okay to be upset about it.

What happened isn’t fair to any of us, but what truly matters is what we do with everything we learned. How we grow as individuals because of everything that has happened.

I encourage you to try to reflect on your experience and share your story, so others know that we are in this together. One thing that has really helped me is reaching out to my friends and listening to their stories. Take the time to check up on your loved ones and schedule time for yourself to go on a walk or meditate. I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy!

Here’s a video I made to remember my time in New Zealand.

Thank you, Grace, for sharing your story with us. Even though your experience in New Zealand was cut short, you have some unforgettable memories and great advice for other students! 

If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out our other reflections from semester abroad students, like this story from Erica who studied abroad in Ecuador.


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