Award-winning app designer eyes a future in tech
Last year, Tauranga Boys’ College international student Michael Ren was named Supreme Winner of the Young Innovator Awards for an app he developed to help students and parents easily track academic progress.
It was a huge accolade for Michael, who arrived in New Zealand from Chengdu, China, at the age of 10 with little English and absolutely no experience in IT. Now in Year 13, Michael is looking forward to studying software engineering at university next year.
Although he and his mother, Niki Li, only intended to stay in New Zealand for two years so he could master English, their experience was such a positive one that they have stayed on, with Michael experiencing primary, intermediate, and secondary schooling in Tauranga.
“My parents realised the importance of learning English when we were travelling overseas and decided that New Zealand would be a safe and friendly place to study. My Mum came on a guardianship visa and my Dad stayed behind in China but he was very supportive of the move.”
“I was excited about coming to New Zealand and my international education experience here has been great. Apart from the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes when I first arrived, I have felt like a Kiwi student.”
Michael believes that coming to study at a young age has been an advantage, both in terms of adapting to a new environment and building social connections. “When you’re older everyone has their own friend groups and it’s harder to break in. Also, there’s more pressure to improve English quickly at high school to keep up with the lessons and schoolwork.”
The freedom to choose from a range of subject options has been appealing for Michael and allowed him to follow his passion for software development. “There are more opportunities to follow your interests here than in China.”
Great learning experience
He says that winning the Young Innovator Award for his Insightz app has been a highlight of his time here and “a great learning experience”. There were more than 400 entries in the competition, which challenges Bay of Plenty students to create a product which will make the world a better place.
Along with prize money, his win provided him with a part-time internship at Tauranga-based tech company Cucumber where chief executive Rob Ford said the team were “so impressed” with Michael’s software development.
“It’s a very cool environment to be in and it’s great to spend time in a work setting,” says Michael. “It was a good opportunity which came out of the effort I put into developing the app.”
But with school coming to an end, Michael is focusing on new projects and on his future plans. This year he has been involved in the Global Ambassadors programme in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty.
The programme offers young people aged 16 to 18 from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to become active local role models for diversity, global awareness, and co-operation. They interact with local communities and organisations, but also have a platform for international connections too.
“It’s about building bridges and breaking down barriers.
As part of that, we explore what diversity and inclusion looks like in our community. We know that some international students struggle to make friends with local students at our school so we started a cultural committee where international and Kiwi students can socialise with each other and work on projects together.”
“Our main goal is to establish a community which students can carry on with next year. It’s worth working on this.”
Looking to the future
Michael is looking forward to starting university and seeing where his qualifications take him. While he is still an international student, he says that growing up here he thinks of himself much more as a Kiwi.
“I feel like New Zealand has given me great opportunities. I don’t think I would be studying software engineering if I hadn’t come here.
He would like to stay on after finishing university but if his dream job working for a big tech company in the US came along, he says he would jump at the opportunity.
“Coming to New Zealand has been amazing. I’ve experienced another culture, learned another language, and made new connections,” he says. “Once you have studied in a new country you are inspired to learn more about the world.”