7 June 2022

Charan overcomes obstacles to finally return to New Zealand study


When international student Charan Sivakumar left Lincoln University for a five-month exchange at the beginning of 2020, little did he know it would be two years before he could return.

Having to dig deep to overcome the disruption to his education caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, he recently returned to Lincoln University to pick up where he left off. He is part of the second cohort of 1000 international students able to come back to New Zealand to complete their studies after being caught offshore when border restrictions began in March 2020. 

As Covid spread, the Indian student was recalled to New Zealand only six weeks into his semester exchange at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, but our border closed while he stood in line at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport.  

“It was pretty tense,” he says. “The flight I had initially booked was cancelled, so I had to book the next earliest flight which was at 7am the next day. I reached the airport around 2am but while waiting for my boarding pass, I received a call from New Zealand asking me not to board the flight as the borders were closing that night.”  

Charan could not even get back to India, as the airports he would need to transit in were closed. At the time, he was in the third year of his Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree, with one year left to complete. 

He says the staff at both universities were super-helpful and after many flurried emails and calls, it was agreed he could return to his studies at Wageningen. With no sign of the border opening in June he was granted permission to stay until the end of the year, and he managed to secure an extension to his Erasmus scholarship which funded his living costs.  

Covid disruption a stressful time 

But the disruption came at a price. The high-achieving student failed his first test after the stressful experience at the airport. “It took me some time to accept what had happened. I just couldn’t focus on study.” But his second attempt was successful, and he never looked back.  

“I decided I was going to treat what was happening as an adventure, and to make the most of my time in the Netherlands.”  

By the end of 2020, Charan was still unable to return to New Zealand and he made the decision go home to India. “The first four months were pretty chaotic, but I was really blessed I could be with my family.” 

He didn’t know how long he would be in India but was committed to getting back to Lincoln to complete his degree. “I didn’t want to study remotely. I decided it was better to have time off and then return to do my Honours year.” 

In the end, it took another year and multiple attempts at securing a place in MIQ before he could return to New Zealand. “When they brought in the lottery system, I had to wake up at 3am each week to log in and try and secure a place. I’m still trying to look at the experience positively and I know that I have stories to share in the years to come!” 

Charan arrived back in Christchurch in January and is excited to be underway with his Honours year. He is working with Professor Clive Kaiser at Lincoln University’s new Centre of Excellence for Potato Research and Extension.  

Potato research of value internationally 

He is researching the development of a rapid test for the identification of Candidatus Liberibacter in potato leaves and tubers. The bacterium causes Zebra chip, a disorder of potatoes which creates distinctive stripes in the flesh and poses a threat to commercial potato growers. Rapid identification of affected plants in the field will help reduce cost and wastage for the $1 billion potato industry in New Zealand.  

“I was keen to be involved in this research because I like solving problems and this is a real-world problem with big implications here and overseas,” Charan says. “Potatoes are grown all around the world and almost every culture uses them as a staple part of their diet. So, this research will be of value internationally.” 

Charan is eyeing a future in vertical farming, an intensive form of horticulture where crops are grown in trays indoors under controlled conditions and he hopes to one day run his own business.  

He says studying at Lincoln has been “an amazing experience” where he has made friends with New Zealand students and other international students. “I learned a lot about different cultures from them.” 

Charan describes the challenges that Covid has thrown at him as “daunting” but says that overcoming them has made him more resilient. He is grateful to be back on track with his international education in New Zealand, a place which “keeps you grounded and allows you to focus on your study”.     

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