Yes, yes, I have lapsed in the blogging department. I know. I’ve been rather busy flying, unpacking, repacking, visiting with family, and administering the Junior Ranger pledge to roughly 8 billion children (and two 30 year old women as well). But now, as I sit here in the fourth different place I’ve called “home” in the last 14 days, soaking and suffocating in a pool of my own sweat, I venture it’s time for a little catch up.
By virtue of having tickets on Air New Zealand rather than Jetstar or Qantas, I was able to leave New Zealand without any delays due to the annoying Chilean ash cloud that had parked itself over much of the southern hemisphere, which, coincidentally, is where New Zealand happens to be located. Not only this, but flying Air New Zealand offered me the added bonus of getting to watch the Richard Simmons safety video not once but TWICE! WAHOO! Anyways, when I left Dunedin the thermometer read 3.7 C (again, that’s just a hair over freezing for all you humanities/social science majors out there). Upon touching down in Phoenix at 10:00 PM the pilot came on the intercom and said “The temperature is currently 109 degrees. Welcome to Arizona.” Welcome to Arizona indeed.
I recall writing something in an early post about New Zealand not feeling like home, despite its overall awesomeness. Perhaps this had something to do with the novelty of being in a new country that I was experiencing at the time, the fact that I was away from Dunedin more often than not during the first couple of months abroad, or maybe I just hadn’t settled in properly yet. Whatever the reason though, by the time I left, that statement was not nearly as true as it was when I first wrote it and had I not had a summer of park ranger-ing and Mars researching to look forward too, leaving NZ would have been a lot harder than it was. Despite all of the awesome places I visited, my favorite aspect of my semester abroad was most definitely all of the different people that I met during my time there and I have to say that it was rather weird and unpleasant saying goodbye knowing that I will probably never see many of them again.
I honestly don’t think I could have asked for a better 5 months in New Zealand. Other than Bank of America shutting down my only source of access to my bank account and a poorly timed adverse reaction to a spider bite, everything else pretty much went 100% as planned. Despite the deceptively small size of New Zealand (at least it always looked so small sitting there in the ocean next to Australia…) I managed to see a pretty darn good chunk of it. I’ve been geotagging my photos all along and the resulting Google Earth map gives a good idea of the geographic territory that I covered:
There are many things that I will miss about New Zealand: first and foremost, my five amazing flatmates; Jesse, Sarah, Stef, Nina, and Kat and all of the other people that I met while abroad, bacon butties, The Lofts, Dunedin itself, bacon butties, the relatively laid back, low-stress New Zealand lifestyle, the weather (a winter without any snow! what a concept!), traveling and hiking as often as humanly possible, karaoke and trivia nights at the Baaa, having the time to actually enjoy my weekends rather than spending most of them doing massive amounts of homework, bacon butties, how New Zealanders pronounce “bear” and call the letter Z “zed”, a well-developed public transportation network, and never having class until 11am and consequently getting sufficient sleep for the first academic semester EVER.
Things I will not miss: incredibly expensive food, crummy internet access, only being able to contact people in the US via skype and email…yeah that’s about it I think.
Despite the noticeable discrepancy in the length of the above lists, I am thoroughly enjoying being back in good ol’ America. It’s great to return to Arizona so I can go back to legally carrying around my concealed firearm whenever I go out and knowing that my government will bail me out if I make unethical financial decisions and squander millions is really just one big load off of my mind. But seriously folks, after two short days at home visiting family and ingesting copious quantities of REAL Mexican food (read: NOT Chipotle or Taco Bell. Yes I did just lump Chipotle in with Taco Bell. Deal with it.), I headed up to Bryce Canyon National Park for 9 days where I began working as an astronomy interpreter/ranger. The final four days of my stint there coincided with the absolutely crazy but loads of fun 12th annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival which is apparently the largest special event put on by any National Park Service unit in the western U.S. Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute. With amazing views of Bryce Canyon (which is NOT actually a canyon btw…) just a few minutes walk from my doorstep and easy access to the beautiful and spectacular landscape of southern Utah, I can’t wait to go back for the month of August. However, as of this afternoon, I am in Lancaster, PA to being work on the planetary geology research project that will eventually become my senior thesis.
Oh, and for those of you that were wondering, the Bryce Canyon Junior Ranger Pledge goes something like this:
“As a Bryce Canyon Junior Ranger, I promise to do all I can to help protect our National Parks. I will collect litter when I’m out exploring, and show respect for nature by not disturbing anything wild.”
The worst is when parents get out their little video camera and record you administering the pledge to their kids. I guarantee you I’m in at least half a dozen YouTube videos by the end of the summer. Grr.
As hard as it is for y’all to believe that I am actually engaging in academic activities whilst here in New Zealand (judging by the sarcastic comments that have populated my inbox over the past few months), I am indeed enrolled for a full course load (Field Studies and New Zealand Geology, Philosophy of Religion, Intro to Maori Studies, and Intro to Geographical Information Systems) here at the University of Otago. Consequently, I figured it might be apropos to comment on the educational system here in New Zealand. I also figured it was time for some procrastination after spending the last 5 hours obediently studying for my philosophy final tomorrow. Given that I haven’t really left Dunedin in the past few weeks (due to finals studying and my current financial predicament…), all pictures in this post are from places I’ve been over the course of the semester but never actually got around to actually writing about.
Going to college (or “Uni” in the local lingo) is overall a pretty comparable experience to what it is in the US. By far the most obvious difference for me is the sheer size of the University of Otago. With a total enrollment that rivals the entire population of Walla Walla, merely walking from class to class feels like pushing your way through the sidewalks of New York City. The most noticeable consequence of this is that there are roughly 20,000 students partying it up across Dunedin every Thursday and Saturday night. The most noticeable academic consequence of this is that classes here are large because (with a few exceptions) there is no enrollment cap. In one way this is great because there is no stress associated with getting into the classes you want to take. My Maori Studies class has about 400 students (of which half are internationals, and of which, perhaps not coincidentally, only about half actually attend class on any given day), philosophy and GIS both about 100, and geology about 70. Ultimately, the ramification of this is that there is much less discussion and interaction with other students and the professors during class time which, to be blunt, doesn’t really bother me a whole heck of a lot. In-class discussion is not really the way I learn best nor is it something I am particularly good at (to which I am sure several of my Whitman profs could attest). However, I know that the complete opposite is true for many people, especially the type of student that is generally attracted to a small liberal-arts school such as Whitman so I’m sure having enormous classes drives a lot of my fellows abroadies up the wall but for me it is pretty much a non-issue. In my opinion, a more annoying consequence of the large classes is professor can’t realistically do all of the grading themselves so assignments and papers are often marked by graduate assistants, tutors, and TA’s. While I don’t have a problem with TA’s grading assignments and papers, the fact that several different people will grade the same assignment across a class is bothersome from a consistency standpoint. It’s difficult to see how 5 different people can grade the same assignment and still have grades be consistent across the class. Watching my graduate Kiwihost grade economic assignments over a glass of wine didn’t exactly reaffirm my faith in the whole grading process either.
I have found the Professors here to be generally very helpful, freindly, and accessible to students outside of class time. There is always the occasional “dud” lecturer that can’t seem to string two cohesive sentences together or those who will drone on unintelligibly for 50 minutes in a sleep-inducing monotonous drawl, but, like at Whitman, these are the exception rather than the rule. My philosophy professor is quite possibly one of the best and most engaging lecturers I have ever had at any level and the other professors in my other classes I would say are also on par with an average Whitman professor. One major difference in classes here is that lectures are often delivered by a committee of different professors over the course of the semester. For example, my GIS class has had three different lecturers, each who covered his particular area of expertise in the subject.
Another big difference is that there is shockingly little motivation for actually attending class. The structure of the courses and the fact that nearly all professors post their slides and lectures online means that one stands to gain comparatively little by going to class as is evident by the fact that in one of my classes, I received a perfect score on an exam that covered material for which I missed a third of the lectures (due to travel and general apathy) while getting only a pedestrian score on the exam that covered a unit during which I missed no classes.
Grading is a bit different as well. Grades here consist of two components: “internal assessment” which is basically all of the stuff you hand in during the semester, homework, midterm exams, essays lab reports, etc…and “external assessment” which basically means the final exam. For my classes, the final exam makes up anywhere from 50%-80% of my final grade which is WAY more than at Whitman where a final exam worth 30% of the final grade is enough to give people nervous fits and night sweats in the weeks approaching finals. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m not complaining about the lack of work during the semester. Last semester at Whitman, I had at least one “mid-term” every week from the 3rd week of school all the way up until finals week which in my opinion is a little excessive. I don’t feel like its necessary to have an exam every 3rd week in order to assess how well a student is doing in a class. But having no midterms (as is the case in two of my classes here at Otago) and placing such a huge emphasis on the final scares me a little too. With little to no work being handed in during the course of the semester, its harder to gauge exactly how well you are doing in the class and impossible to get an idea of what types of questions the professor is liable to ask on an exam. Having the final be worth so much of the final grade would seem to put people who just aren’t good at taking exams at an unfair advantage.
There is no debating that I spend significantly less time on school-related activities here than I do at Whitman. Whereas in Walla Walla, spending at least several hours on homework every afternoon/evening is the norm, doing so here is the rare exception. After becoming accustomed to working my ass off the last five semesters at Whitman, these four months at Otago have felt like a sort of glorified extension of winter break. Whether this should be attributed more to the supposed academic rigor of Whitman or the “un-rigourousness” of Otago, I do not know. Part of me thinks that the experience here at Otago is more similar to what one would experience at large public university in the states given that there are international students here from said large public universities that echo many of the same sentiments that I do means this is probably not a fair comparison.
Ultimately, I am pleased with my educational experience here, even if the thought of throwing myself back into the academic fray at Whitman next Fall is absolutely terrifying right now. My geology class was, if a bit chaotic and confusing at times, a good hands on and practical experience that will likely benefit me down the road and possibly even this summer doing field work. Same is true of GIS which I will also be using when I do research this summer. I’ve learned tons in Maori Society about the native people and society of New Zealand although given that I knew absolutely squat about the subject beforehand, this probably isn’t saying much. Philosophy was also rather enjoyable and enlightening especially given my general dislike of humanities classes.
I head for home in 13 days. The next few weeks will be mostly studying with hopefully one more sightseeing/hiking trip thrown in there somewhere. Then on the 22nd I will take my last exam at 9:30 A.M and then head straight out to the airport to fly up to Auckland and then onto Los Angeles and Phoenix before a drive home to Flagstaff.
According to the calendar, I have now been in New Zealand for exactly seven weeks, and if my calculations are correct, this puts me just a wee bit more than 1/3 of the way through my time here. How exactly this is so I am not quite sure but calendars, being rather inanimate objects, rarely lie. Sprinting across the Auckland Airport with my luggage cart feels like it was such a short time ago that I still feel kind of winded. Besides being a venue for the dissemination of stories and pictures to various family, friends, and, since it is the internet after all, random strangers, I’m also intending this blog to be a sort of a personal journal for me to remember the trip by so here are my overall thoughts from the first six weeks down south along with some random pictures that I wasn’t quite sure where else to put…
To put it bluntly, New Zealand itself is amazing and I feel like I’ve hardly been anywhere yet. 6 weeks in and I still have a huge lists of things I want to do right here in Dunedin (Brewery tours!!! yeah!!!), much less the rest of the country. I’m getting incredibly excited for fall break in a few weeks when I will be flying up to the North Island for the week to explore Auckland, chill on some beaches, and climb some active volcanoes. While I didn’t have time or money to come early or stay late in order to have more travel time, I feel like I will have experienced a pretty decent portion of this country by the time I head back to the states in June.
When I applied for study abroad, I had to write a short essay on what I thought would be the most difficult aspect of adjusting to a new country. Given that I wasn’t going to a war zone or tribal village or anything like that, I responded by saying that making the transition from a school with 1400 students to one with 25,000 would be the greatest challenge. Yeah, totally called that one. The University of Otago is not a bad place, it’s just different. I wouldn’t even say adjusting has been that much of a challenge, but its just kind of surreal to have a single class that’s almost as large as the entire class of 2012 at Whitman. Personally, I feel as though the quality of the teaching here is more or less on par with Whitman although the fact that my smallest class has 75 people and my largest has over 300 makes personal interaction with professors and other students pretty much impossible. It also makes labs somewhat chaotic and disorganized which can be a little frustrating at times. The typical weekly workload here is stunningly low. 6 weeks into classes and, not counting the work I put into my geology field camp project that was due the first week, I think I’ve probably done about as much studying/homework as I would do in 5 or six days at Whitman. No joke. I am taking 4 classes which is a pretty typical course load here and I literally still feel like I am on break. Lest you think I’m getting this semester off completely pain free, finals here are notoriously hellacious. Final exams, which take place over a three week period in June, are generally about 4 hours long and make up anywhere from 50% to 80% of my final grade in each of my classes. I’m really hoping that the weather is so crappy by then that studying sounds more appealing than traveling but somehow I doubt it will be that simple.
While I’m really glad that I’m getting a chance to experience life at a “big school” for a semester, it’s definitely not something I would want to do for four years. It’s a lot of fun but I think more importantly it really makes me appreciate what I have at Whitman and all the more happy that I chose Whitman over UofA a few years back. Despite all the wonderful things about New Zealand, it still feels really weird to be away from Whitman for such a long time and not a day goes by that I don’t miss it and all the people that have essentially made it a home away from home for me. While the people here are all fantastic, it definitely does not feel like home. After some in-depth self psychological analysis, I think I can pretty confidently attribute this to the fact that I know in just a few short months, I’ll be packing my bags and not coming back. Well at least not for a while 😉 While in many ways, being at Otago feels like freshmen year all over again, what with all the new experiences and meeting tons of new people, the knowledge that my visit is extremely temporary and that I won’t be spending the next four years of my life here makes the dynamic quite a bite different that it back at Whitman.
My living situation is turning out to be pretty sweet. I am in a complex of 6 adjoining flats (think mini-apartment buildings) with a total of 35 other people so there’s always lots of people around and it sorta feels like a miniature dorm minus the professional cleaning and the dining halls. I have not set anything on fire in the kitchen yet although when you want to cook something on the stove, you must flip an switch on the wall in addition to turning the little dial which is unbelievably annoying to have to remember. NOTHING sucks more than putting a nice big pot of tortellini on the stove and coming back 15 minutes later to find that your water isn’t even hot yet. It would definitely be more of an adjustment if this were the first time I was living on my own but having lived off campus myself last semester, it really hasn’t been much of a change in terms of style of living. I still find myself forgetting to do laundry until I literally run out of socks and/or underwear which here is a slight problem because use of the dryer is discouraged in order to save electricity and its humid enough that things tend to take a few days to dry completely out on the line.
Despite the favorable exchange rate, stuff is expensive here, most notably food. Milk generally runs about $7 or $8 per gallon and I’m not even going to talk about how much bacon costs. If you know me well enough, you’ll realize the problem with those statements. Ramen is still dirt cheap but I haven’t given into that in my 2.5 years in college so far and I sure don’t intend to go over to the dark side now.
Complaining about the weather here is about as popular here as complaining about Organic Chemistry is at Whitman, which is to say, all the rage. Personally, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the weather. Yeah, it rains a fair amount but when it is nice, its NICE and for some unexplainable reason, rainy days seems much less dreary here than they do in Walla Walla. Probably because everything is nice and green rather than wheat-colored. People don’t deal with the cold here very well either. I woke up the other day to 35 degree temperatures and everyone walking to class looked like they we’re going off to summit Mt. Everest. Electricity here is so expensive that people don’t often use the horribly inefficient heat pumps in the flats (which inexplicably are located ON THE CEILING. Last time I checked, heat rises and I’m pretty darn sure the laws of physics don’t reverse in the southern hemisphere) so it can get a little chilly in the evenings but nothing that a layer of thermal underwear and a few blankets can’t fix. I’ve been told that merino wool clothing is a godsend to have for the cold winters but the cheapest merino wool long underwear I’ve found is over $100 and I could buy like 4 kilos of bacon for that so I think I’ll stick with what I have.
That’s about it for now. I’ll continue to try to post at least once a week. If that’s too little for you, know that the internet sucks here and I have to be on campus in order to upload photos lest I use up too much of the 30GB monthly data allowance for our entire flat. This is a problem because my computer and campus internet get along about as well as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly. On the flip side, if once a week is too often for you, then clearly you don’t like pretty pictures. Like I said, I’m sort of intending this blog to be my personal journal of sorts for this trip so if you are bored by the details, then tough beans.