New Zealand. Home of Middle Earth…or rather, the filming location for Tolkien’s fictional world in Lord of the Rings. These movies meant so much to me growing up. My family often had Lord of the Rings movie nights where my siblings and I bonded over our mutual love for Middle Earth. It played a crucial part in developing who I am as a person. Sam taught me about loyalty. Pippin taught me about personal growth. Aragorn taught me to embrace who you are. The Fellowship, as a whole, taught me about fellowship and how love transcends any background. This rich world followed me through the years and played a large role in my choice to study abroad in New Zealand. While here, I have been able to visit filming locations such as Pelennor fields and the scene where Frodo shouts, “Get off the road quick!” I even got to ride a horse through Isengard! You can’t get more Lord of the Rings than that!

New Zealand personal developmentWhile it’s wonderful to be able to indulge in my childhood fantasy world, I’m also grateful to have been able to explore the incredible nature views that New Zealand has to offer. Mount Cook, Hokitika Gorge, Curio Bay, Queenstown, and so many other places offered spectacular scenery of stunningly blue rivers (one of which I bungee-jumped over!), snow-capped mountains, and landscapes beyond imagination! Because New Zealand is such has such a gorgeous environment, the people of New Zealand, called Kiwis, work to preserve that natural beauty.

New Zealand is very environmentally-conscientious, especially compared to the United States. In fact, the prime minister just started a program to ban single-use plastic bags, the kind used in grocery stores, to cut down on plastic waste. As a result of New Zealand’s environmentally-friendly mindset, I’ve become more aware of how my actions affect the environment. I’ve switched to biodegradable toothbrushes instead of using plastic ones. I always bring my reusable bags when grocery shopping. I even try to be more conscientious of the environment with the food I buy, opting for more local fruits and vegetables. I’m just ashamed it took me moving halfway around the world to take action.

New Zealand personal developmentSpeaking of moving halfway around the world, I may have traveled far in the physical world, but I’ve traveled even further internally in terms of personal development. Being on my own, away from my friends and family has had its ups and downs. For instance, I have become more independent and learned how to balance that independence with a healthy lifestyle. Before coming here, I knew very little about cooking meals. I know how to follow a recipe, but I wasn’t as familiar with doing the grocery shopping for the week or cooking a variety of foods where your body is healthy, and your taste buds are happy. I’ve had my fails – I’ve burnt popcorn, overcooked pasta, and even melted the spatula while making scrambled eggs! I’ve also had some wins – I’ve learned to make butternut soup from scratch, a perfectly balanced sweet potato and black bean chili, and delectable tofu and bell pepper fajitas. I still have a lot to learn about cooking but continue to learn from my mistakes and enjoy my successes!

I’ve also experienced challenges with accessibility in the classroom, particularly in my history class. In this class, we watched old films and documentaries on WWI every other session, and only two of the films had subtitles. I’m hearing impaired and need subtitles to follow along. This was a struggle for me because I couldn’t understand what the films were saying 90% of the time. To find a solution to my problem, I inquired with the University of Otago Disability Office if they were able to send the DVDs to a captioning company like my home school could. However, because Otago is a public university and gets its money through government funding, they did not have the resources to accommodate my request. So, I did what I could. I read the readings, I got a notetaker for the class, and I even attended a couple office hours with the professor to make sure I was learning what I needed to learn.

Additionally, all my professors have accents and I have difficulty understanding them. This semester has reminded me about adaptation and learning to accept the circumstances. My entire education here has been through visual means. I read the textbooks, I copy the PowerPoint slides, and I rely on the help of others to capture information for me. While I dislike relying on peers to get information for me because I might miss out on something I deem important, I’m doing well grade-wise and that’s the important thing. I have learned a lot about New Zealand through my BCA excursions and personal travels, so I’m still gaining new knowledge!

Another challenge, which hit me more recently, is homesickness. The BCA excursions have started to wind down with the end of the semester and finals are approaching fast. My motivation to go out has decreased, and my yearning for home after being away for four months now has grown. However, I combat homesickness with exercise, making plans, and tapping into my creative side.

Being an Occupational Therapy (OT) major, I tend to focus more on anatomy, mental health and OT theory. While in New Zealand, I am taking general education credits outside my OT major like Māori Society and creative writing. Until now, I haven’t had time to focus on my creative side which loves to write fictional stories, draw, write songs and paint. I have found time to rekindle my love for the arts and can give them more attention than I did before. New Zealand helped to uncover a part of me I had buried the past few years.

I have bad days sometimes, but I am always grateful for the opportunity to be in New Zealand. It’s impossible to expect myself to be excited about everything every single day and it’s okay to miss home. It’s part of the journey. You get stronger climbing hills than walking a flat terrain and my growth, independence, and understanding of the world are better for it.

Studying abroad is not just a physical journey to another country. You go through an internal journey as a person by being in a new environment and trying new things and adapting to this new lifestyle. It’s up to you to carry those lessons home. I plan to take home my independence, my creativity and my awareness of being environmentally-friendly, and none of those would have been formed without my study abroad experience.

New Zealand personal developmentAbout the Author – Meghan Matje, Fall 2018 BCA Dunedin, New Zealand  & Elizabethtown College student

Occupational Therapy student. Writer. Adventurer. Geek. Awkward, yet lovable. Hi, I’m Meghan!

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