The most important lesson I learned in New Zealand

Jessica Robyns
January 4, 2018

Everyone told me that going abroad would change me in some profound way. They said that I’d return to the U.S. a completely different person. Well, I’ve been home for a while now, and I still feel like the same person. I don’t think New Zealand changed me as completely and profoundly as they said it would.

The changes I’ve noticed in myself are more subtle. I’m better at budgeting now, and I’m more confident at my job. I also used to be very shy and reserved when meeting new people, and I’ve noticed that I’m starting to open up more quickly. Perhaps most significantly, I feel more confident about my future plans and my career path.

I decided to take a semester off from school after returning from New Zealand. It’s the best thing for me, and I never would have realized that if I hadn’t gone abroad. I also realized that pre-NZ, I was spending a lot of time doing things that I didn’t really enjoy, just because other people expected me to do them. While I was in NZ, I decided I wasn’t going to do those things anymore once I got home. I’m not sure why, but it took living abroad for me to finally make that decision.

Besides learning about myself, I also learned about my place in the world. As an American abroad, I’ve been told by teachers and chaperones to avoid the “ugly American” stereotype. It’s unfortunate that Americans have such a bad rep abroad, but there’s a reason for it.

The U.S. is a huge country and a world power. Many Americans speak only one language and live their entire lives in their native country. The most popular movies and music in the world come from the U.S. I think this leads to American-centric thinking. When you live in a country that dominates world politics and culture, it’s easy to think and act like your country is the most important in the world. But that’s an illusion that can only be broken by living in a foreign country.

New Zealand is super small and isolated. Sometimes it even gets left off of world maps. But even more unknown than New Zealand are the island nations of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Everyone’s heard of Hawaii and Fiji, and maybe have been there for a luxurious vacation. But fewer know about the native cultures of these places, or their island neighbors. I am amazed by the history and culture of Pacific peoples- cultures that I didn't even know existed before coming to New Zealand.

The Pacific Ocean contains a small amount of land spread out over a large area. The ocean covers one third of the Earth’s total surface area and contains many more countries than you’ve probably heard of, large and small, and each made up of many islands. It’s hard to get a definitive count on how many islands there are because there’s so many. The region known as Melanesia, for example, has approximately 30,000 islands. All of the inhabitants of the ‘Nesias originate from Taiwan, where the first canoes set out to populate the Pacific thousands of years ago.

The voyaging skill of Pacific peoples is incredible. Can you imagine sailing into the blue unknown to find an island that no one has ever been to before? Well that’s what Pacific people did, over and over again. New Zealand was the last to be populated, about 800 years ago. The ancestors of New Zealand Maori came from the island of Rarotonga, which is 3000 km (1800 miles) away. They knew that New Zealand was there because they observed that birds without webbed feet migrated towards it every year.

The most important lesson I learned in New Zealand is that the U.S. is not the world. Every country in the world is filled with beautiful cultures, more cultures than I could possibly learn about in my lifetime, more countries than I could visit, so many people who are living lives so different from mine, and so far from the U.S. Their countries and their cultures are just as important as mine.

Jessica Robyns

<p style="margin-bottom:12.0pt">Kia ora!&nbsp;My name is Jessica and I'm majoring in biology and environmental studies at Lawrence University, a small school in Appleton, WI. I grew up in Marquette, Michigan and will always call the shore of Lake Superior home. I love to travel and have been to Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina so far.<span style="text-autospace:none"><span style="font-size:16.0pt"><span style="font-family:&quot;Times&quot;,serif"> </span></span></span></p>

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Lawrence University
Marquette, MI
Environmental Studies
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